Globalization: much needed, yet so treacherous
Developments in Germany have surprised those rejoicing defeats of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Alternative for Germany (AfD) has won 13% of votes and is Bundestag’s third largest party; significantly, it’s the first time since World War II that a far-right, nationalist party has done this well. AfD will surely want to add momentum to this regained arc of history by chipping away at the economic and social policies that we now take for granted. They are no longer at the gate; they are just one step away from the round table.
It’s not happening in Germany alone. The assault on the established order has begun even in the US and UK, with policies now resolutely inward-looking. The global right wants to fashion many changes, including the framework upon which the current idea of globalization is draped. Politician Shashi Tharoor writes in his Project Syndicate column that the backlash against globalization will be felt on both cultural and economic fronts. The unravelling of the quarter-century-old global economic order will have many effects, some unpredictable but mostly unavoidable.
India’s version of the new world order is still work-in-progress, though early signs indicate a somewhat dichotomous character. India’s social and diplomatic policies are making a departure from the past, including moving away from their pluralistic, cosmopolitan and multicultural moorings. The resistance to Rohingya migrants—including hapless children, women and the elderly—under the implausible and untenable pretext of pre-empting Islamic terrorism is an example.
But, conversely, the current administration’s economic policies endorse the late 20th century world order, which includes an openness to financial globalization and a dogged belief in an economic orthodoxy that has been discarded elsewhere. Ironically, financial globalization—especially portfolio flows—is like the two-faced Janus: much needed yet so treacherous.
McKinsey Global Institute’s report, “The New Dynamics Of Financial Globalization”, sees a return to a “more stable, more risk-sensitive era of financial globalization” though manifold risks remain. India has been a beneficiary of global capital flows. Since opening up to foreign portfolio flows in 1992-93, India has received net inflows of Rs12.6 trillion, of which 32% was invested in debt instruments. In the first five months of 2017-18 (till 15 October), while equities saw net outflows of Rs7,054 crore, debt instruments received Rs1.11 trillion. This could be the fabled chink.
The first warning comes from Mervyn King, a former Bank of England governor and vocal supporter of Aston Villa football club. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, King warns of a “bumpy decade ahead” because of over-borrowing and the spectre of rising interest rates in the developed economies leading to a rash of defaults. This doomsday prediction might resonate with India’s twin balance-sheet problem (over-leveraged companies and contaminated banks). The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is under pressure to cut interest rates, not raise them. Assuming the RBI does slash rates, the slightest disruption in the global economy could still spell trouble, given Indian corporate and financial sector’s over-reliance on foreign capital.
The second alert comes from Deutsche Bank’s chillingly titled report, “The Next Financial Crisis”. It shows how the frequency of financial crises has increased after the Bretton Woods system broke down in the early 1970s, especially since it allowed nations to issue fiat currency without any disciplining restraint. The report lists 11 probable sources for the next crisis, which include central bank unwinding, escalation of global imbalances or Italy going bust. In short, the report states that the current global economy is “particularly prone to a cycle of booms, busts, heavy intervention, recovery and the cycle starting again...there will likely be another financial crisis/shock pretty soon with their frequency continuing to be high until we create a more stable global financial framework.”
Christine Lagarde, managing director of International Monetary Fund, provides the third cautionary note, saying that balance sheet unwinding by Western central banks, particularly the Fed, could lead to capital outflows from emerging economies and the ensuing volatility could even spill over into the domestic economy. She advocates gradualism and increased communication between central banks.
The fourth arrow comes from the bow of Jerome H. Powell, a member of Federal Reserve System’s board of governors. Like his predecessors, Powell reiterates that adverse consequences from central bank unwinding will be felt only by emerging economies with fundamental vulnerabilities, thus absolving Fed of fomenting global instability. While admitting that emerging economies are better placed this time to manage outcomes, he says significant risks remain. Powell cites research that puts emerging markets’, including the Indian, corporate sector debt at vulnerable levels; any interest rate increase, accompanied by earnings drop and exchange rate volatility can create “unpredictable and outsized” surprises.
So, while growth in the US and Europe is still gradual, Indian policy managers need to urgently put some risk mitigation measures in place. An obvious one is to immediately recapitalize public sector banks. The second is to actively catalyse investment: waiting for miracles to happen while drawing up a 10-point programme is so 42 years old.
Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.
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