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Free trade no answer to credit crisis

Written By: - Date published: 10:41 am, November 24th, 2008 - 13 comments
Categories: economy, International - Tags:

Free trade is basically a good idea. We live on a world of limited resources, we should use those resources as efficiently and sustainability as possible. Trade barriers that distort the costs of production in different countries undermine the efficiency of resource use. Ideally, we wouldn’t have them – but we would also need consistent labour and environmental standards between countries so that we don’t end up distorting the use of resources in a way that advantages those with weaker standards instead of those with the most efficient processes.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that free trade is an answer to the financial crisis we are facing right now. The financial crisis was not created by trade protectionism, it was caused by insufficient controls on greedy and irresponsible money traders. So, more free trade isn’t go to address the underlying problem with our global economy, it’s just going to give it a fleeting boost. It’s a bit like giving caffeine to a seriously injured person. Sure, they’re going to feel better for a while but once that passes, they’re still going to be in trouble unless you start treating what’s actually wrong with them.

Indeed, our experience increasingly says that free trade without proper regulation of international capital creates more trouble than good. By opening themselves up, countries are left at the mercy of money traders who have the power to collapse currencies and plunge economies into chaos, and can have a profit motive to do so without any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on ordinary people. We only need to look to New Zealand for an example – we have been subject to several attacks on our currency which have hurt our trade and we are constantly threatened with capital flight if we want to implement policies that are good for New Zealand but bad for rich foreigners’ profit margins.

That the leaders at APEC have jumped on the Doha Round of free trade negotiations as a response to the financial crisis is a cause for concern. It looks like they are dropping much needed reforms of the finance markets into the too-hard basket. Sure, a bit more free trade might mitigate the problems for now but, soon enough, we will again be paying the price for letting gamblers play with the fate of our economies.

13 comments on “Free trade no answer to credit crisis”

  1. higherstandard 1

    Hold on SP you sound like Key !

    Both free trade and reforms are obviously important they have commented on the reforms as per below.

    “The current situation highlights the importance of ongoing financial sector reform in our economies and the valuable role played by APEC?s financial sector capacity building work. We welcome continued development and innovation in the financial sector and believe that as financial systems deepen and become more complex, regulatory and supervisory tools must be more effective. The crisis also highlights the need to develop more effective standards of corporate governance and risk management as well as the importance of social responsibility in the financial sector. ”

    I wouldn’t hold you breath on free trade moving ahead or financial reforms – APEC and similar meeting have a tendency to be waffle fests.

  2. Stephen 2

    Free trade may or may not be a panacea, but it seems to now be ‘conventional wisdom’ that protectionism to ‘protect jobs’ etc. will be quite bad (i.e. the Depression), so at least no ones talking about that . I was afraid that’s what this post was going to be about – phew!

  3. Phil 3

    By opening themselves up, countries are left at the mercy of money traders who have the power to collapse currencies and plunge economies into chaos

    That’s simply not accurate. Not opening up a currency is ultimately what causes ‘attacks’ (emotive language yours, not mine).

    At the simplest level, the value of a currency is a derivation of the relative strength of your economy vs the rest of the world. Left to float of it’s own devices, the opportunity for a trader to profit on currency is really only availabe through arbitrage, or astute assessment of fundamental economic factors (GDP, interest rates, inflation rates etc).

    However, when you have a government or central bank defending a particular level of currency valuation, it becomes very easy to attack when that level becomes unjustified (ie, when you’re defending a ‘high’ exchange rate and your economy weakens). That’s what we saw here pre-float, and what we’ve seen internationally with the Indonesians, the South Americans, the East Asians….

  4. The current credit crisis was the inevitable side effect of banks trying to spread the risk of shaky sub-prime debt in an environment of easy credit and monetary inflation. Free trade puts the brakes on this kind of excessive production of credit, by destroying its incentives. Why create risky vehicles for profit when credit can be used to better advantage in creating more exports?

    Currency speculation is something that occurs in all economic environments except one using the gold standard. There is no link between speculation and free trade at all. The New Zealand dollar is currently vulnerable to speculation because we are over- leveraged with cheap overseas credit, not because we have an open market.

  5. lprent 5

    Mac: You’re forgetting the hot-potato solution. You create risky debt and pass it on to someone who is willing to handle it for a short period. They in turn attempt to find a sucker/investor to offload it to. The end-game is to not be the person handling the risky debt at the end.

    This is the old shell/pyramid game. Guess what, it is a lot easier than working at something productive – well at least if you’re sure you’re not going to be the sucker holding at the end. Of course no-one intends to be the sucker…

    There is only one general solution to this (well apart from doing some severe darwin-nowing with death camps for stupidity). That is to regulate and make financial pyramid schemes illegal. But it has to be done world-wide. The NZ/aussie banks are in reasonably good shape because there is/was pretty good restrictions of the level of risk allowed in their assets. However, like everyone else, we still get the full effects of stupidity in the US and European central banks.

  6. That is to regulate and make financial pyramid schemes illegal.

    You’ll get no argument from me there, nor, I suspect, would you get one from John Key. However, as more and more credit is absorbed in trade, rather than speculation, I think you will find that the only people willing to risk their cash in such financial pyramid schemes are the terminally stupid.

  7. djp 7

    The financial crisis was not created by trade protectionism, it was caused by insufficient controls on greedy and irresponsible money traders

    Whatever… the financial crisis was created by easy credit from govt empowered agencies and govt intervention (think Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Zero-Downpayment Act etc)

  8. lprent 8

    Mac: Yes they are terminally stupid. However they are also probably a high proportion of investors. It all comes down to perceived risk levels versus returns.

    The problem is that a lot of people who are investing have spent a life working in companies involved in trade (ie the retired – the biggest investor group). They have a strong perception of risk levels involved in trade and the often low returns. They also look at the bright shiny returns from various types of ‘secured’ investments and perceive a low risk with a good return (eg NZ’s finance firms). We’re not talking MBA’s here. We’re talking people that prefer to invest directly rather than get done with the scam overheads of managed funds.

    So in effect as a broker/finance firm/…. what you have to do is to create the perception of a fund with a safe investment with a good return. Doesn’t have to be a great return, in fact those should be avoided because they will scare off the punters, and drop the return to short-con ummm fund creator.

    Almost of the really interesting finance scams operate like that. From the tulip in the 17th onwards to the current mortgage derivatives (removing risk).

  9. Ari 9

    Whatever the financial crisis was created by easy credit from govt empowered agencies and govt intervention (think Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Zero-Downpayment Act etc)

    I’ll acknowledge that this is part (but not whole) of the problem in specifically the USA. Which in turn came from the culture of non-assistance in the USA where “socialised” solutions are routinely derided and instead debt-based and user*-pays solutions are the norm. Yuck. If they had a government more like ours with, for example, state housing, they might be better off with less risky loans.

    *Read: the person who can least afford it.

  10. Pascal's bookie 10

    Freddie and Fannie make a useful scapegoat, and they certainly made some bad decisions, but they were far less culpable than others.

  11. Josh On 11

    “Free trade is basically a good idea.”
    People accuse socialism of being a good idea – I am glad that now “free trade” has achieved this status. The difference I believe is that socialism is possible. Free trade, has been anything but free, even without official protections, trade is conducted with warships and structural adjustment programs – both of which have had devastating effects ion the world. It is time to abandon the Utopian notion that capitalism can work.

    “it was caused by insufficient controls on greedy and irresponsible money traders”
    It used to be said that the genius of capitalism was that it incorporated human greed into the equation, apparently it requires a Goldilocks standard of greed. Too little and you get no “innovation”, too much and you get a credit crunch. The reality is that it is a system that encourages and rewards greed at every step – exaggerated and distorting a human capacity fro survival.

  12. sean 12

    “Currency speculation is something that occurs in all economic environments except one using the gold standard.”

    Speculative attacks on the US currency when it was on the gold standard pushed it off the gold standard. Govt attempts to peg a currency to *any* notional standard make it vulnerable to speculative attack, including the gold standard.

    “the financial crisis was created by easy credit from govt empowered agencies”

    This is a really funny conspiracy theory. And amazingly durable in the face of the facts.

    1) The subprime crisis is only one part of the credit derivatives problem. All credit was badly underpriced. The media and blogososphere go on about subprimes because the public understands retail credit but has no idea how wholesale credit markets work. The CDS market is over US$10 trillion, US failing subprime mortgages losses are probably only around half a trillion. The sub-prime crisis is a part of the problem, and was the triggering cause, but the wholesale credit markets were a bubble waiting to burst and the govt didn’t blow that bubble.

    2) Look at the stats about US mortgages:
    http://economistsview.typepad.com/.shared/image.html?/photos/uncategorized/2008/09/24/gse.gif
    What changed during the housing bubble was the growth of mortgage-back securities by non-bank issuers – from nearly zero to nearly 20% of US mortgages. Freddie and Fannie’s market share *declined* during the housing bubble. These were people taking Freddie and Fannie’s market by engaging in lending that F&F weren’t allowed to – sub-prime mortgages – and spinning them into CDOs which they then sold at unrealistic prices.

    F&F responded by also moving into the subprime market in 2005-2006. F&F screwed up badly, and there was very dodgy hiring of their own regulators involved. But they were the late-comers to the sub-prime party, not the guys throwing it.

  13. sean 13

    “The NZ/aussie banks are in reasonably good shape because there is/was pretty good restrictions of the level of risk allowed in their assets.”

    Nope. They’re in good shape because we don’t have deep credit markets.

    Our regulation isn’t better than the UKs.

    Nor (to be honest) is it the regulations that were at fault. They tend to be principle-based and insist on use of “good practice and procedures in valuing assets”. But they needed to be enforced more stringently. The regulators needed to push harder for better stress tests and more realistic pricing algorithms. But to do that there would have to have been some political pressure on (or help for) the regulators, which was very much lacking.

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