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Developing Resilience to Financial Shocks

In this column, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi writes that we need a better understanding of countries’ vulnerability to financial “shocks” in order to develop economic resilience. The sharp decline in developed countries’ demand for exports from the developing world also threatens global economic stability, and highlights the need for developing and transition economies to reduce their export orientation if they want sustained growth.

GENEVA, May 9 2013 (IPS) - The global repercussions of the 2007-2008 financial crisis are a stark reminder of the economic interdependence in our globalising world. No country was spared from the shock waves that originated in the financial systems of developed economies.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Credit: UNCTAD.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Credit: UNCTAD.

Transmitted through both trade and financial channels, they led to an economic slowdown in most countries, and even outright recessions in others.

These recent events call for a thorough examination of the different kinds of possible shocks to the external economic environment and the channels through which they spread. We also need to better understand the factors that determine countries’ vulnerability to such shocks, and how we can strengthen the resilience of different economies.

Perhaps the most obvious case of an external shock is that of a financial crisis, such as the Asian Financial Crisis initiated in the early summer of 1997, or the most recent global financial crisis.

These shocks have demonstrated that countries need to build resilience against the shortcomings of our international monetary and financial system. The most pertinent shortcoming is the failure to avoid a disorderly expansion of short-term capital movements, which have been a major factor in creating economic instability.

Partly as a result of the experiences of the Asian Financial Crisis, many developing countries have built up their resilience and are in a stronger position today to withstand shocks originating in international capital markets than in previous decades.

Lower debt-to-GDP ratios and improved debt management have been contributing factors in this resilience. But the most important factor in shielding these countries from the volatility of capital flows has likely been their accumulation of foreign exchange reserves.

However, reserve accumulation as an insurance against the instability of capital markets is a costly policy measure, and one that is always second best to multilateral measures to better regulate these markets.

Furthermore, not all countries have been able to build up such a “war chest”. Indeed, some countries are now left with little reserves to cope with future needs that may arise in international financial markets, making them more vulnerable to external shocks.

A second external shock that has recently affected many developing countries is the sharp slowdown in demand for their exports in the developed markets after the recent financial crisis.

In the decade preceding the crisis, many developing countries were able to benefit from a trade-led expansion, allowing them to achieve growth rates that were sometimes four or five percentage points higher than those of the developed world.

This resulted in a significant shift in the balance of the world economy, with developing countries accounting for a growing share of trade and growth, and led some pundits to argue that we were about to witness a “de-coupling”, which would see developing countries continue to grow despite the unsatisfactory performance of developed countries.

However, prospects in the developing world remain heavily influenced by the growth dynamism in the developed countries. To the extent that developing countries continue to rely on exports to developed countries as their key growth driver and have to cope with unfettered capital flows generating boom and bust cycles, their economies will remain vulnerable to shocks to their external economic environment.

Most forecasts predict that the current difficult external environment is likely to remain for the near future, with only a slow recovery towards a weak growth path in advanced economies.

This suggests that developing and transition economies will need to reduce their export orientation to developed economies if they want to continue to grow and increase their resilience to external economic shocks. Instead, they will need to rely more on domestic, regional and South-South trade. Thus they will need to adapt their development strategy in order to strengthen resilience.

On the other hand, coordinated measures at the multilateral level to expand global demand would be preferable. For example, increasing domestic demand in advanced countries with a current account surplus would stimulate global demand while helping to reduce global imbalances. This would be more appropriate than the current process of global rebalancing, which is being led by demand compression in deficit countries, accentuating the risks of a global economic downturn.

These are only two examples of significant external shocks that developing countries are vulnerable to. Identifying external shocks and mitigating their impact on trade and development requires the availability of statistical tools that capture the growing interdependence of national economies.

Among the many measures that are available, the terms of trade is a key indicator of the impact of external shocks, especially in countries with a high share of external trade relative to gross domestic product.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has been particularly active in this area, pursuing the development of more disaggregated terms of trade figures by estimating the contribution of different product groups to changes in the terms of trade.

All these issues require the attention of policymakers, as a better understanding of the problems will help in finding solutions.


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