Reforming the International Financial System Jomo Kwame Sundaram

When we fail to act on lessons from a crisis, we risk exposing ourselves to another one. The 1997-¬1998 East Asian crises provided major lessons for international financial reform. Two decades later, we appear not to have done much about them. The way the West first responded to the 2008 global financial crisis should have reminded us to do more. But besides accumulating more reserves, Southeast Asia has not done much else.

Crisis prevention and management

First, existing mechanisms and institutions for preventing financial crises remain grossly inadequate. Financial liberalization continues despite the crises engendered. Too little has been done by national authorities and foreign advisers to check short-term capital flows while unwarranted reliance has been put on international adherence to codes and standards. There is also little in place to address the typically exaggerated effects of movements among major international currencies.

Second, existing mechanisms and institutions for financial crisis management are grossly inadequate. The greater likelihood, frequency and severity of currency and financial crises in emerging market economies in recent times — with devastating consequences for the real economy and innocent bystanders — makes speedy crisis resolution imperative.

Economic liberalization has also compromised macro-financial instruments available to governments for crisis management and recovery. Instead, governments have little choice but to react pro-cyclically, which tends to exacerbate economic downturns. Governments thus fail to act counter-cyclically to avoid and overcome crises, which have been more devastating in developing countries.

There is a need to increase emergency financing during crises and to establish adequate new procedures for timely and orderly debt standstills and work-outs. While IMF financing facilities were significantly augmented in 2009, little else has changed.

International financial institutions, including regional institutions, should be able to provide adequate counter-cyclical financing, including for ‘social protection’. Instead of current arrangements which mainly benefit foreign creditors, new procedures and mechanisms can help ensure that they too share responsibility for the consequences of their lending practices.

Developmental reforms

Third, international financial reform needs to go beyond crisis prevention and resolution to improve provision of development finance, especially to small and poor countries that face limited and costly access to funding their development priorities. For years now, the World Bank and other multilateral development banks have abandoned or cut industrial financing.

Fourth, powerful vested interests block urgently needed international institutional reforms. Only governance reform of international financial institutions can ensure more equitable participation and decision-making by developing countries. The concentration of power in some apex institutions can be reduced by delegating authority to others, and by encouraging decentralization, devolution, complementarity and competition with other international financial institutions, including regional ones.

Fifth, reforms should restore and ensure greater national economic authority and autonomy, which have been greatly undermined by national level deregulation as well as international liberalization and new regulation. These can enable more effective, especially expansionary and counter-cyclical macroeconomic management, as well as adequate development and inclusive finance facilities.

One size clearly cannot fit all. Policy ownership will ensure greater legitimacy, and should include capital account regulation and choice of exchange rate regime. As likely international financial reforms are unlikely to adequately provide what most developing countries need, national policy independence in regulatory and interventionist functions must be assured.

Regional cooperation

Finally, appreciation is growing of the desirability of regional monetary cooperation in the face of growing international financial challenges. The Japanese proposal for an Asian monetary facility soon after the outbreak of the 1997 crises could have helped check and manage the crises, but US opposition blocked it. With its opposition to more pro-active global initiatives, alternative regional arrangements cannot also be blocked.

Such regional arrangements also offer an intermediate alternative between national and global levels of action and intervention, besides reducing the monopoly power of global authorities. To be effective, regional arrangements must be flexible, but also credible and capable of both crisis prevention and management.

(This article was originally published in Inter Press service (IPS) news on July 13, 2017)