(11/28/2015) Calls for International coordination of macroeconomic policy are back, after a 30-year hiatus. To some it looks anomalous that the Fed is about to raise interest rates at a time when most major central banks see a need to extend further monetary stimulus. Continue reading
A long-awaited reform of the International Monetary Fund has now been carelessly blocked by the US Congress. This decision is just the latest in a series of self-inflicted blows since the turn of the century that have needlessly undermined the claim of the United States to global leadership.
The IMF reform would have been an important step in updating the allocations of quotas among member countries. From the negative congressional reaction, one might infer that the US was being asked either to contribute more money or to give up some voting power. (Quotas allocations in the IMF determine both monetary contributions of the member states and their voting power.) But one would then be wrong. The agreement among the IMF members had been to allocate greater shares to China, India, Brazil and other Emerging Market countries, coming largely at the expense of European countries. The United States was neither to pay a higher budget share nor to lose its voting weight, which has always given it a unique veto power in the institution.
The change in IMF quotas is a partial and overdue adjustment in response to the rising economic weight of the newcomers and the outdated dominance of Europe. Voting share in the IMF is supposed to be in proportion to economic weight, not equal per capita or per country. This acknowledgement of reality, the principle of matching the representation to the taxation, is sometimes known as the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, rules.” The principle is probably one of the reasons why the IMF has usually been a more effective organization than others such as the UN General Assembly.
It’s not that President Obama hasn’t tried to exercise global leadership, as just about any US president would. He pushed for this agreement to reform the IMF at the G20 summit in Seoul in November 2010 (the first meeting of the group of leaders to have been hosted by a non-G7 country). He prevailed despite understandable European reluctance to cede ground.
Some American congressmen may not be aware of the extent to which the IMF reform agreement represented the successful efforts of the US executive to determine the course of the international negotiations. But then the rejection by the US Congress of an international agreement that the president had painstakingly persuaded the rest of the world to accept is not a new pattern. It goes back a century, to the inability of President Woodrow Wilson to persuade a myopically isolationist US Congress to approve the League of Nations (1919). Examples over the last century also include the International Trade Organization (1948), SALT II (1979), and the Kyoto Protocol (1997), among others. A past history of trying to re-open international negotiations that the executive has already concluded is also the reason why Congress has to give President Obama trade promotion authority (that is, the usual commitment to fast-track congressional votes on trade agreements), or else our trading partners will not negotiate seriously. This would impede ongoing talks in the Pacific, with Europe, and globally (in the venues, respectively, of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the World Trade Organization).
Commentators have been warning since the 1980s that the US may lose global hegemony for economic reasons, as an effect of budget deficits, a declining share of global GDP, and the switch from net international creditor to net debtor. One version is the historical hypothesis of imperial overstretch (Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987).
But the main problem seems to be a lack of will rather than a lack of wallet. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the problem with US domestic politics as wild swings of the pendulum between excessive isolationism and excessive foreign intervention in reaction to short-term events, untempered by any longer term historical perspective. After the United States lost 18 rangers in Somalia in October 1993 (Blackhawk Down), Congress became highly resistant to just about any foreign intervention, no matter how big the “bang for the buck.” Then, after September 11, 2001, it was prepared to follow President George W. Bush into just about any military intervention, no matter how dubious the benefit or how high the cost. The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has recently been estimated at $4 trillion by my colleague Linda Bilmes, co-author with Joe Stiglitz of The Three Trillion Dollar War, 2008. (It’s not just that the wars lasted for ten years; the biggest costs of such wars come subsequently, particularly for medical care that veterans need for the rest of their lives.) These days, the pendulum has apparently swung back to the isolationist direction once again.
One had hoped that short-sighted congressmen had been made aware that among the costs of the foolish US government shutdown three months ago was damage to the country’s global credibility and leadership. Most visibly, to deal with the shutdown, the White House in October had to cancel its participation at the leaders’ summit of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in Bali and thereby stymie progress on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was widely reported that the Asian countries drew from Obama’s absence the conclusion that they should play ball with China instead (Drysdale, “Asia Gets on with It While America’s out of Play,” Oct. 7, 2013.)
The increasing power of China and other major emerging market countries is a reality. It is precisely what makes it important that the United States support a greater role for these countries in international institutions such as the IMF, the G20, and APEC.
The rise of China could go well or badly for international relations. It depends in part on whether the status quo powers make room for the newcomer (Nye, 2013).This historical pattern famously goes back to Thucydides’ description of the rising power of ancient Athens and the resulting war with Sparta (History of the Peloponnesian War). Examples of the consequences of failing to accommodate the new arrival include the role of Germany’s rise in the origins of World War I 100 years ago (e.g., Gilpin, War and Change in International Politics, 1981).
The new Chinese President, Xi Jin Ping, has used the phrase “New Type of Great Power Relationship.” It sounds anodyne but may carry greater significance. The phrase apparently demonstrates awareness of the historical “Thucydides trap.” It signals China’s openness to working with other countries to avoid the tragedies of 460 BC and 1914 AD. It is only sensible to take him up on his offer and so smooth international relations into the future.
The potential for US leadership has survived remarkably well the loss of national status as an international creditor. This has partly been a matter of luck. In Asia, historical and territorial frictions among Japan, Korea, and China, have kept US participation far more welcome in the Pacific than it would otherwise be. Meanwhile, in Europe, fiscal follies have been even more egregious than America’s. Asians are aware that the IMF has stretched the rules to lend into the euro crisis on a greater scale than it did during the Asia crisis of 1997-98. They understandably feel entitled to a greater say in the running of the Fund. But the emerging market countries have been so disunited, for example, that no two of them could come together in 2011 to support a common candidate for IMF Managing Director, notwithstanding that the three previous incumbents were European men who flamed out before completing their terms in office. (The result was a European woman, Christine Lagarde. She has done a good job rather than kowtowing to Europe; but that is beside the point.)
The latent demand around the globe for enlightened US leadership, which first appeared at the end of World War I, is still there. It can survive budgetary constraints (and apparently can survive misguided military interventions). But it cannot survive an abdication of interest on the part of the US Congress.
[This column appears at East Asia Forum. It is an extended version of an op-ed, titled “Absent America,” that appeared first at Project Syndicate. The author would like to thank Joe Nye and Ted Truman for comments.]
Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. The choice of priorities has turned out to be timely: world food prices reached a record high earlier in 2011, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.
Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.
The G-20’s efforts will culminate in the Cannes Summit in November. But, when it comes to specific policies, caution will be very much in order, for there is a long history of measures aimed at reducing commodity-price volatility that have ended up doing more harm than good.
For example, some inflation-targeting central banks have reacted to increases in prices of imported commodities by tightening monetary policy and thereby increasing the value of the currency. But adverse movements in the terms of trade must be accommodated; they cannot be fought with monetary policy.
Producing countries have also tried to contain price volatility by forming international cartels. But these have seldom worked.
In theory, government stockpiles might be able to smooth price fluctuations, releasing commodities in times of shortage and adding to stocks when prices are low. A free-marketer will point out that they can undermine the incentive for the private sector to hold stockpiles. A valid response is that this incentive is undermined regardless, because political economy never allows “hoarders” to “price gouge” in times of food crisis. It all depends on how stockpiles are administered. The record in practice is not encouraging.
In rich countries, where the primary producing sector usually has political power, stockpiles of food products are used as a means of keeping prices high rather than low. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy is a classic example – and has been disastrous for EU budgets, economic efficiency, and consumer pocketbooks.
In many developing countries, on the other hand, farmers lack political power. Some African countries adopted commodity boards for coffee and cocoa at the time of independence. Although the original rationale was to buy the crop in years of excess supply and sell in years of excess demand, thereby stabilizing prices, in practice the price paid to cocoa and coffee farmers, who were politically weak, was always below the world price. In response, production fell.
Politicians often seek to shield consumers through price controls on staple foods and energy. But the artificially suppressed price usually requires rationing to domestic households. (Shortages and long lines can fuel political rage as well as higher prices can.). Otherwise, the policy can require increased imports in order to satisfy the excess demand, and so can raise the world price even more.
If the country is a producer of the commodity in question, it may use export controls to insulate domestic consumers from increases in the world price. In 2008, India capped rice exports, and Argentina did the same for wheat exports, as did Russia in 2010.
Export restrictions in producing countries and price controls in importing countries both serve to exacerbate the magnitude of the world price upswing, owing to the artificially reduced quantity that is still internationally traded. If producing and consuming countries in grain markets could cooperatively agree to refrain from such government intervention, working through the World Trade Organization, world price volatility could be lower.
In the meantime, some obvious steps should be taken. It is too bad that the G20 attempt to do away with bio-fuel subsidies has failed, so far. Ethanol subsidies, such as those paid to American corn farmers, do not accomplish policymakers’ avowed environmental goals, but do divert grain and thus help drive up world food prices. By now this should be clear to everybody. But one cannot really expect the G-20 agriculture ministers to be able to fix the problem. After all, their constituents, the farmers, are the ones pocketing the money. The US, it must be said, is the biggest obstacle here.
What the G-20 farm ministers — meeting for the first time June 23 — have agreed is to forge an Agricultural Market Information System to improve transparency in agricultural markets, including information about production, stocks, and prices. More complete and timely information might indeed help.
But speculation is not necessarily destabilizing. Sarkozy is right that leverage is not necessarily good just because the free market allows it. And that speculators occasionally act in a destabilizing way. But speculators more often act as detectors of changes in economic fundamentals and provide the signals that smooth fluctuations. In other words, they often are a stabilizing force.
The French have not yet been able to obtain agreement from the other G-20 members on measures aimed at regulating commodity speculators, such as limits on the size of their investment positions. I hope it stays that way. Shooting the messenger is no way to respond to the message.