In a matter of a few short weeks during the summer of 1997, the thriving countries of east Asia saw their economies overwhelmed
by a financial tsunami. First Thailand and Indonesia, and then South
Korea and Malaysia, saw investors panic and watched capital flee. Their
currencies plummeted in value and their biggest companies wrestled with
After being held up as models of successful development, these countries were suddenly denounced by the International Monetary Fund and prominent economists everywhere for their lack of transparency, poor accounting standards and crony capitalism. The IMF
came into the region with a rescue plan that imposed harsh conditions.
It demanded that these countries impose austerity plans and allow
foreign investors to buy up their businesses at depressed stock prices.
The other part of the story was that the IMF insisted that these
countries repay their debts. The only way they could do so was to
export like crazy. This route was opened to the Asian countries by the
plunge in the value of their currencies, most significantly against the
dollar. The result was that goods from the region became very cheap to
American consumers, yielding a flood of imports to the United States.
was a second route that the IMF could have followed for debt repayment.
In recognition of the severity and extraordinary nature of the crisis,
the IMF could have allowed for substantial write-downs of debt by the
countries of the region. But it chose not to follow this route.
course the IMF was not an independent actor. The organisation takes its
lead from the United States. At the time, the folks calling the shots
were the trio that Time magazine dubbed the "Committee to save the World" (CSW): Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
IMF "rescue" for east Asia had important ramifications for the rest of
the developing world. The message that developing countries took away
from the IMF's east Asia rescue was that they never wanted to be in a
situation in which they were forced to turn to the IMF for help. The
one way that they could prevent being forced to turn to the IMF was to
accumulate massive amounts of foreign reserves as a defence. The only
way to accumulate foreign reserves is to run a balance of trade
This effort by developing countries to accumulate
reserves meant that it was not only the countries of east Asia who were
exporting like crazy, but rather the whole developing world. Reversing
the conventional view in economic theory, in the years after 1997 there
was a massive flow of capital from the developing world to the wealthy
countries, with the United States being the biggest recipient.
capital flow from the developing world created the hothouse in which
the US housing bubble could flourish. The jobs lost to imports created
weakness in the labour market. Even though the 2001 recession
officially ended in November of that year, the economy continued to
shed jobs for nearly two more years, in part due to the loss of jobs to
imports. Seeing this weakness in the labour market, the Federal Reserve
continually pushed interest rates lower, reaching 1% in the summer of
Low interest rates in turn sustained the bubble far
longer than otherwise would have been possible. The bubble itself
helped to conceal many of the excesses and outright fraud perpetuated
during these years. In a world where housing prices are rising by more
than 10% a year, and generating enormous profits for the firms in the
real estate and banking sector, many sins can be concealed.
bubbles inevitably burst. The bursting of the housing bubble will erase
$8tn in wealth (more, if prices overshoot) and will leave many of the
country's pre-eminent financial institutions bankrupt. More important,
it is throwing the US economy into its worst downturn since the Great Depression.
history, we never get second chances, but it is still worth asking the
question of what the world would look like if the CSW had taken the
other path. Suppose Greenspan, Rubin and Summers had instead arranged
for the IMF to write down a large portion of the east Asian debt so
that they were not forced to place the same priority on exports.
a less onerous rescue would not have created the same rush to
accumulate reserves across the developing world, as did the bail-out
designed by the CSW. We can't know exactly how things might have turned
out if the CSW had taken this alternative path, but it's likely that
Rubin's shares in Citigroup would be worth considerably more money today.
© 2023 The Guardian
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