Abstract

The experience of the 1990s has demonstrated that currency and financial sector crises in emerging market economies can have devastating implications for these economies and major spillover effects for the global economy. In response, the IMF has been substantially strengthening its efforts to monitor and address financial sector weaknesses and deficiencies in the provision of transparent data. The buildup of unsustainable balance sheet positions can leave countries vulnerable to sudden declines in capital inflows that make it impossible to sustain current accounts and exchange rates at prevailing levels. The IMF staff has also devoted considerable research to developing a system for monitoring early warning signals of crises.38

Points of Departure

The experience of the 1990s has demonstrated that currency and financial sector crises in emerging market economies can have devastating implications for these economies and major spillover effects for the global economy. In response, the IMF has been substantially strengthening its efforts to monitor and address financial sector weaknesses and deficiencies in the provision of transparent data. The buildup of unsustainable balance sheet positions can leave countries vulnerable to sudden declines in capital inflows that make it impossible to sustain current accounts and exchange rates at prevailing levels. The IMF staff has also devoted considerable research to developing a system for monitoring early warning signals of crises.38

While CGER’s work on emerging market economies will also contribute to vulnerability analysis, it differs from the work on early warning systems (EWS). The latter focuses on models that relate the probability of currency and financial sector crises to a broad set of indicators. Some EWS models have found that crisis probabilities are positively related to variables such as current account imbalances and measures of real exchange rate overvaluation relative to trend. By contrast, CGER’s present focus is limited to the current account balance—that is, to only one of the key leading indicators of crises. The current account position is a central consideration in IMF surveillance, and CGER’s objective is to develop a more systematic approach for assessing when current account imbalances are a source of vulnerability. While this present effort contributes to assessing the sustainability of pegged exchange rates and, more broadly (including under floating regimes), the likelihood that exchange market pressures could intensify, it is not aimed at this stage at generating quantitative estimates of equilibrium exchange rates for emerging market economies.

As in CGER’s analysis of industrial countries, the work on emerging market economies has a medium-run orientation. The objective of the industrial country analysis is to form judgments about how much saving-investment balances and exchange rates deviate from the levels toward which they are likely to be pushed by medium-run macroeconomic fundamentals. There is no presumption that CGER can explain the short-run behavior of exchange rates. In a similar spirit, the work on emerging market economies is oriented toward assessing whether current account positions are sustainable over the medium run. Analysis of the sustainability of current account positions from a medium-run perspective can contribute to assessing vulnerability to currency crises in the short run, but CGER’s efforts are not focused on providing estimates of crisis probabilities.

CGER’s methodology for assessing the current account positions and exchange rates of industrial countries rests on assumptions and simplifications that are not entirely appropriate for most other countries. One of the simplifications that underpins the model of saving-investment behavior for the industrial countries is the implicit assumption that each country can borrow or lend an unlimited amount of capital internationally at a constant premium above the world rate of interest. This assumption facilitates the estimation of the saving-in vestment equation and is regarded as an acceptable simplification for the industrial countries, but it is not valid for emerging market economies, which generally confront much more limited and variable access to international capital markets, along with changing interest rate premiums.

In addition, the industrial country methodology does not go very far in modeling the linkages between equilibrium saving-investment positions and structural policies. In terms of the earlier discussion of Figure 4, the industrial country methodology pays little attention to the role that structural adjustments can play in shifting the position of the S-I line.39 As a result, it characterizes the equilibrium levels of exchange rates as largely independent of structural policies and, correspondingly, the potential for trade-offs between exchange rate adjustment and structural reforms is absent.

Moreover, although the industrial country framework does explicitly recognize that the need for exchange rate adjustment over the medium run depends on the extent to which structural fiscal positions are adjusted, it assumes that the national saving-investment balance is positively and linearly correlated with the structural fiscal position. This assumption is implicitly based in turn on the assumption of an unchanged interest rate premium, which may not be valid in cases of relatively large adjustments in structural fiscal positions. In particular, a relatively large fiscal contraction (expansion) that improves (worsens) a country’s structural fiscal balance may substantially affect market expectations about the sustainability of the country’s macroeconomic policies, leading to a significant reduction (increase) in its interest rate premium along with an increase (decrease) in investment relative to saving and, hence, a decline (rise) in the S-I balance. This channel is likely to be more significant in emerging market economies than in industrial countries, although it has also been germane for some industrial countries at times (e.g., Italy).

Because of these considerations and other difficulties,40 CGER has made only modest progress in developing a framework for emerging market economies. To date its focus has been on developing criteria for assessing the sustainability of current account imbalances. No single criterion for assessing sustainability has been found acceptable; therefore, CGER has developed several criteria to use collectively for identifying countries in which sustainability questions could arise. In addition, because the assessments rely on the WEO projections as estimates of prospective current account positions, CGER has also been developing benchmarks—analogous in purpose to those described earlier for the industrial countries—to provide a consistent and disciplined mechanism for considering possible bias in the WEO projections and, accordingly, in the corresponding assessments of current account sustainability.

Criteria for Assessing Sustainability

As the first step in the effort to extend its framework to emerging market economies, CGER investigated the historical relationship between current account balances and a set of potentially important determinants of medium-run saving-investment positions. This study, conducted by Chinn and Prasad (2000), built on CGER’s earlier analysis of the saving-investment behavior of industrial countries; Appendix IV summarizes the econometric methodology and results. While the S-I norms derived from the analysis seem reasonable in many cases, for a number of countries the calculations are more doubtful as estimates of equilibrium saving-investment balances. Such findings imply that despite the relative sophistication of the Chinn-Prasad (CP) effort, it would not be appropriate to base assessments of current account sustainability solely on the CP estimates. It is important to recognize not only the general difficulties that can arise in seeking to explain history with econometric models, but also that history may have limited relevance for the future in individual countries that have undertaken major structural reforms and/or experienced major changes in their access to international capital markets.

This conclusion has led CGER to consider other criteria that can be used in combination with the CP norms—including criteria that focus on ratios of net foreign liabilities (NFL) to GDP.41 Different criteria may be appropriate for assessing projected current account deficits and projected surpluses. Three additional criteria have been tentatively adopted for assessing whether underlying current account deficits are unsustainably large. These criteria focus on whether projected current account deficits (as ratios to GDP) either exceed the average experience over a recent historical period, or would imply an increase in NFL/GDP from its current level, or would be inconsistent with keeping NFL/GDP below some threshold level over the long run.

Such criteria involve ad hoc choices of the recent historical period (e.g., the past decade) and the threshold NFL/GDP ratio (e.g., that corresponding to the seventy-fifth percentile for the sample of emerging market countries). In addition, they abstract from additional considerations that are relevant in assessing current account sustainability, such as the extent to which a country’s external liabilities have been built up through foreign direct investment and the maturity and currency composition of its external debt. In light of these considerations, the criteria may well be modified and extended over time as CGER gains experience in applying them. Although the objective is to develop a methodology that can be applied systematically and consistently across countries, it would be inappropriate to presume that large current account deficits should always be resisted, or to lose sight of the potential for capital inflows to make substantial contributions to economic development.

The limitations of the individual sustainability criteria provide the motivation for applying them collectively. For the reasons just discussed, however, it would not be appropriate to draw mechanical conclusions from their application. It is important to take account of the relative heterogeneity of the emerging market economies and to incorporate case-by-case judgments into the assessments. For those countries for which the methodology suggests that current accounts may be unsustainable over the medium run, it is important to consider relevant information that might have been overlooked or distorted in the application of the criteria.42 The process should also consider whether there are countries not identified by the criteria that might nevertheless be cases in which sustainability issues warrant concern.

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