Asia needs its own monetary fund By Martin Wolf Published: May 18 2004 20:49 | Last Updated: May 18 2004 20:49 Asia - by which I mean east and south Asia - contains 55 per cent of the world's population, its most dynamic economies, its fastest-growing trade, its highest savings rates, most of its biggest current account surpluses and its largest stocks of foreign currency reserves. It now needs to accelerate regional trade and monetary co-operation.
Start with trade. In the 12 months to November 2003, the economies of developing Asia sent 40 per cent of their exports to other Asian developing countries and 10 per cent to Japan. Japan sent 45 per cent of its exports to developing Asia, against 25 per cent to the US and 16 per cent to the European Union. Even China, which sent 27 per cent of its exports to the US, sent 31 per cent to developing Asia and another 13 per cent to Japan.
This then is already a highly integrated region. But some of the current plans for sub-regional preferential trading arrangements endanger its efficient integration of production. What is needed instead is a single free trade arrangement covering the entire region. This should then become the basis for a global move to free trade among market-oriented economies.
Now turn to money and finance. Today, Asian governments are exporting astonishing quantities of capital, overwhelmingly to the US. This is not just absurd. It is also economically destabilising.
In 2002 and 2003, the principal economies of the Asian region ran a combined current account surplus of $540bn, of which $249bn was Japan's. This aggregate surplus covered more than half of the cumulative US current account deficit of $1,023bn. It would be natural to assume that these huge current account surpluses were the means through which the region exported its excess private savings. But most Asian economies have not been net exporters of private capital.
In aggregate, the net capital inflow into the principal economies of the region was $178bn. Hong Kong and Singapore had large net capital outflows, and there were also small net outflows from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. But Japan, China, Taiwan, India and South Korea all had sizeable net capital inflows. These governments have then taken all the money earned from the current account surpluses, plus the net capital inflow, and sent it back as official reserves. That is why the gross reserves of these economies rose by the astonishing total of $718bn over these two years.
Why did Asian governments behave in this way? The answer is that they wished to avoid a collapse of the US dollar. They feared a collapse for several reasons: it would have generated additional deflationary pressure, particularly important to Japan and China; it would have undermined their export competitiveness; and it would have reduced their current account surpluses or even generated sizeable deficits, rendering them vulnerable, they feared, to another financial crisis.
This recycling of the foreign currency pouring into the region creates a certainty, a probability and a risk. The certainty is that these countries lose a great deal of money, since the cost of the capital entering the country substantially exceeds the return on the foreign currency reserves. The probability is that they will lose still more when the dollar falls: if it were to fall by 25 per cent, the aggregate losses on Asian foreign currency reserves would exceed $500bn. The risk is that this huge increase in the monetary base will generate - indeed, already is generating - destructive asset price bubbles and ultimately inflation.
It makes no sense for a region with huge current account surpluses and foreign currency reserves to be so desperate to avoid international financial crises. The US should feel vulnerable instead. A step towards reducing the region's perceived vulnerability would be to create a large Asian Monetary Fund. Armed with this insurance, Asian countries could allow their exchange rates to appreciate, generate greater internal demand and then run current account deficits. This would generate global balance of payments adjustment. Moreover, if Asians do wish to lend money generously, why not benefit their own people rather than Americans?
Preliminary steps have been taken, notably through the Chiang Mai initiative, agreed in May 2000, which created bilateral swap arrangements worth $40bn. But the aim should be to create a fund with at least 10 times as much money, which would still absorb only a fifth of the region's currency reserves. Such an institution would need to undertake forthright surveillance of the members' economies. Initially at least, this job could be subcontracted to the International Monetary Fund.
With total resources of about $316bn, the IMF is too small to be relevant to the region's larger economies. Moreover, by their arrogant narrow-mindedness over the appointment of the managing director, the Europeans have (together with the Americans) demonstrated once again their determination to keep the IMF under their thumb. It is unlikely that they would accept a large expansion in Fund resources, since this would certainly require a sizeable reallocation of quotas and so of power inside the institution. Today, tiny Belgium, with no currency of its own, has a bigger quota than India. That makes no sense at all.
If the Asian region is to absorb more of its own savings internally, it also needs to develop efficient capital markets. But the immediate priority is to halt the inordinate foreign currency reserve accumulation. The lead has to come from China, whose exchange rate against the dollar has been completely fixed. Once the renminbi appreciates, most of the other currencies in the region can, and should, follow. The next step could be the choice of a common basket peg among the most internationally integrated economies.
A cessation of its open-ended lending would be good for Asia itself. It would also be good for the US. While the huge current account deficits are helping the US avoid a choice between guns and butter today, they will ultimately generate a dollar crisis. Correction of these deficits, through Asian currency adjustment and greater reliance on internal Asian demand, would help - indeed force - the US to put its macroeconomic house into order. A de facto Asian secession from the IMF would also teach Europeans an invaluable lesson in humility.
Asia should dare to take a big leap forward in trade, monetary and financial co-operation. Americans and Europeans may not like the results. They will have to live with them.