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«Alan Greenspan Washington, D.C. • 2007 ISSN 0252-3108 Editor: Michael Harrup Cover design and production: IMF Multimedia Services Division ...»

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Balance of

Payments Imbalances

Alan Greenspan

Washington, D.C. • 2007

ISSN 0252-3108

Editor: Michael Harrup

Cover design and production: IMF Multimedia Services Division

Typesetting: Choon Lee



Foreword...................................... v

Opening Remarks

Andrew Crockett.............................. 1

Balance of Payments Imbalances Alan Greenspan............................... 2 Appendix: Supporting Data......................... 15 Questions and Answers........................... 17 Biography..................................... 27 The Per Jacobsson Lectures......................... 29 The Per Jacobsson Foundation...................... 32 iii Foreword The 2007 Per Jacobsson Foundation Lecture was delivered by Dr. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Board of Gover- nors of the Federal Reserve System of the United States, at the IFC Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on October 21. Sir Andrew Crockett, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Per Jacobsson Foundation, chaired the event.

The lecture was delivered in conjunction with the Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Mon- etary Fund and the World Bank, as is traditionally the case. Per Jacobsson Foundation events, which include not only lectures but also occasional symposia on topics in finance, economic policy, and international cooperation, are also sometimes held in the context of the Annual General Meeting of the Bank for Interna- tional Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland.

The Per Jacobsson Foundation was established in 1964 to com- memorate the work of Per Jacobsson (1894–1963) as a statesman in international monetary affairs. Per Jacobsson was the third Managing Director of the IMF (1956–63) and had earlier served as the Economic Adviser of the BIS (1931–56). Per Jacobsson Foun- dation lectures and contributions to symposia are expressions of personal views and intended to be substantial contributions to the field in which Per Jacobsson worked. They are distributed free of charge by the Foundation. Further information about the Foun- dation may be obtained from the Secretary of the Foundation or may be found on the website, www.perjacobsson.org.

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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this Per Jacobsson lecture. The Per Jacobsson Foundation was established, as you probably know, more than 40 years ago in honor of the third Managing Director of the IMF, Per Jacobsson, who, prior to his tenure at the IMF, had been, for maybe two decades, chief economist at the BIS.

Since 1964, there have been annual lectures in this series, which have, fortunately for us, brought us a very distinguished range of speakers. I see from the audience today that there is considerable anticipation for this year’s speaker.

On my left is Leo Van Houtven, who is the President of the Foundation. I am Andrew Crockett and I chair the Board of Directors of the Foundation.

Our guest this afternoon really needs no introduction. Before his current career in the media—[Laughter]—he served for nearly two decades as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. And as many of you will know, before that he chaired President Ford’s Council of Economic Advisors. He has also served on a number of very important commissions in the public sector and had a distinguished career as a business economist.

I do not think there is any need for me to say more. You have come here to hear what he has to say. So, without any further ado, let me ask Alan Greenspan to address us. [Applause]

–  –  –


Considering the nature of the title of my paper, I am incredibly impressed that there are so many people who wish to hear what I have to say on this subject.

Thank you, Sir Andrew and Mr. Van Houtven.

The financial crisis that erupted on August 9 was an accident waiting to happen. Credit spreads across all global asset classes had become compressed to clearly unsustainable levels. Something had to give. If the crisis had not been triggered by a mispricing of securitized U.S. subprime mortgages, it would have eventually erupted in some other sector or market. The candidate of many analysts in recent years has been a dramatic and abrupt unwinding of America’s huge current account deficit, with all sorts of extraordinary aftermaths as a consequence. To date this has not happened. But fear-laden concerns put that deficit on the agenda of virtually every international gathering I attended as Fed chairman and since.

Unless protectionist forces drain the flexibility of the international financial system, I do not view the ultimate unwinding of America’s current account deficit, amounting to 6 percent of our GDP, as a cause for undue alarm. Apprehensions about the U.S. external deficit are certainly not groundless. At some point, foreign investors will balk at increasing the share of dollar-denominated assets in the portfolios they hold. There obviously is a limit to the extent that U.S.

financial obligations to foreigners can reach. And perhaps the recent decline in the U.S. dollar and shrinkage of the current account deficit is an indication that America is approaching that limit.

In 2006, the financing of the deficit siphoned off almost threefifths of all the cross-border savings1 of the 67 countries that ran 1The sum of the balances of those countries that have surpluses.

–  –  –

current account surpluses in that year. Developing countries, which accounted for nearly half the value of those surpluses, were apparently unable to find sufficiently profitable investments at home that overcame market and political risk. The United States a decade ago likely could not have run up today’s near–$800 billion annual deficit for the simple reason that we could not have attracted the foreign savings to finance it. In 1995, for example, total cross-border saving was less than $300 billion.

But the reason I conclude that the persistently growing U.S.

current account deficit does not have seriously negative consequences for the U.S. economy is that those deficits are a small part of a far larger but less-threatening, ever-expanding specialization and division of labor that is irreversibly evolving in our increasingly complex global environment.

Pulling together the pieces of evidence—anecdotal, circumstantial, and statistical—strongly suggests, to me at least, that the current account deficit is best viewed as a segment of a broader set of rising deficits and offsetting surpluses that reflect transactions of U.S. economic entities—households, businesses, and governments—mostly within the borders of the United States.

The long-term updrift in this broader swath of unconsolidated deficits and mostly offsetting surpluses of economic entities has been persistent but gradual for decades, probably generations.

However, the component of that broad set that captures only the net foreign financing of the imbalances of the individual U.S. economic entities, our current account deficit, increased from negligible in the early 1990s to 6.2 percent of our GDP by 2006.

What data we have suggest that the rise in America’s current account deficit as a percentage of GDP since early this decade is, to a large extent, the result of American business and government’s turning to foreign sources of deficit funding in place of domestic funding, and not predominantly the result of an acceleration in the secular uptrend in economically stressful company or government imbalances. Household borrowing, incidentally, from abroad to finance shortfalls in cash flow has always been negligible.

In my judgment, policymakers have been focusing too narrowly on foreign claims on U.S. residents rather than on all claims, both foreign and domestic, that influence economic behavior and can be a cause of systemic concern. It is the level of debt, not the 4 per JAcobsson lecture source of its financing, that should engage us. Our conventional tabulations are often too loosely rooted in the obsession of the mercantilists of the early eighteenth century to achieve a surplus in their balance of payments which brought them gold in settlement, then the mistaken standard of the wealth of the nation.

Were we to measure financial net balances of much smaller geographic divisions, such as the individual American states or Canadian provinces, which we do not, or of much larger groupings of nations, such as South America or Asia, the trends in these measures and their seeming implications could be quite different from those extracted solely from the conventional nationdelineated measure of current account balance.

The choice of the appropriate geographical unit for measurement should depend on what we are trying to find out. I presume that, in most instances, at least in the policy setting, we seek to judge the degree of economic stress that could augur significantly adverse economic outcomes. We should require data on financial balances at the level of detail at which economic decisions are made: individual households, businesses, and governments.

Those data are the equivalent of current account balances, but at the level of individual economic entities where leverage and stress are experienced, and hence, where actions and trends that may stabilize economies originate.

National borders, of course, do matter, at least to some extent. Debt service payments on foreign loans ultimately must be funded from exports of tradable goods and services or from capital inflows, whereas domestic debt has a broader base from which it can be serviced. For a business, cross-border transactions can be complicated by legal risks and a volatile exchange rate, but generally these are difficulties not outside most normal business risk.

It is true that the market adjustment process seems to be less effective or transparent across national borders than within them.

Prices of identical goods at nearby locations but across borders, for example, have been shown to differ significantly, even when denominated in the same currency.2 Thus, cross-border current 2The persistent divergence subsequent to the creation of the euro of many prices of

–  –  –

account imbalances impart a degree of economic stress that is likely greater than that stemming from domestic imbalances only.

But in a flexible economy, are any of these as significant as we tend to make them?

I do not deny that nation-defined current account imbalances do have important implications for exchange rates and terms of trade. But I suspect the measure is too often used to signify some more generic malaise, especially in the context of the so-called twin American deficits, with reference to our politically determined federal budget deficit, which has quite different roots and policy requirements than those of the market-determined current account balance.

This afternoon, I should like, first, to turn to the narrower issue of the current account balance and then proceed to the broader issue of dispersion of unconsolidated economic entities and its implications.

The economic literature of recent years is filled with explanations of the possible causes of outsized U.S. current account deficits or their algebraic equivalent, an excess of domestic investment over domestic savings.3 To me the most persuasive explanations are a major decline in home bias and a concurrent United States?” International Finance Discussion Paper 740 (Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2002). For the case of U.S. and Canadian prices, see Charles Engel and John H. Rogers, “How Wide Is the Border?” American Economic Review, Vol. 80 (1996), pp. 1112–25.

3Single-factor “causes” such as falling savings and rising federal deficits are often so interactive that it is difficult to disentangle them. For example, a rise in household saving, other things equal, would lower a country’s current account deficit. But other things are never equal. A rise in household saving implies a fall in household spending—and perhaps, as a consequence, a decline in corporate saving as profits decline. And the associated fall in profit taxes would lower government saving, and on and on. Since all the components of saving and investment are so intertwined, causal relationships are obscure.

Most foreign and many U.S. analysts point to the burgeoning U.S. budget deficit as the primary cause of our current account imbalance. But over the past decade the fiscal balance has at times veered in directions opposite from the direction of the current account deficit. As our budget was building surpluses between 1998 and 2001, for example, our current account deficit continued to rise. Some argue that the heavy purchases of U.S.

Treasury obligations by other countries’ monetary authorities, first Japan and then China, to suppress their exchange rates have elevated the dollar’s foreign exchange value relative to what it would have been without intervention and thereby played a role in the huge increase in U.S. imports (from 13 percent of U.S. GDP in early 2002 to 17 percent in early 2007). There is doubtless some truth in that, but the impact of official efforts to manipulate exchange rates, in my experience, is often exaggerated.

6 per JAcobsson lecture significant acceleration in U.S. productivity growth. Home bias is the parochial tendency of investors to choose to invest their savings in their home country, even though this means passing up more risk-adjusted profitable foreign opportunities. When people are familiar with an investment environment, they harbor less uncertainty, and hence, less risk than they do for objectively comparable investments in distant, less-accessible environs.

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