Was it really just over a decade ago that the International Monetary Fund and investors howled when Malaysia imposed capital controls in response to the Asian financial crisis? We ask because suddenly those times seem so distant. Today, the IMF is not just sitting on its hands as country after country resurrects capital controls, but is actually going to far as to promote their use. What about the investors whose freedoms are eclipsed by the new controls? Well, their enthusiasm for foreign lending and investing has not been damped in the least. So what is going on here? In our view, nothing short of the most significant transformation in global financial management of the past 30 years.
Like most transformations, this reform has been gradual. Reform in the IMF view of capital controls actually began soon after the Asian crisis, as countries such as Chile, China and India imposed controls. Most analysts found that these controls were beneficial in key respects. This success led the IMF to soften its hardline stance: it admitted that controls might be tolerable in exceptional cases provided that they were temporary, market friendly and focused strictly on capital inflows. That said, policymakers adopted capital controls at their peril- not least risking condemnation by the Fund and by credit rating agencies, and punishment by international investors.
What was just a trickle of controls before the current crisis is now a flood. Iceland led the way in 2008 as it grappled with its financial implosion. Soon after, a parade of developing countries took action: some strengthened existing controls while other introduced new measures that targeted inflows and outflows. For example, during the crisis China augmented its extensive array of controls, while Indonesia, Taiwan, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Ukraine, Russia and Venezuela also introduced controls of one sort or another. In October 2010 alone: Brazil twice raised taxes on foreign investment in fixed-income bonds while leaving foreign direct investment untaxed; Thailand introduced a 15 percent withholding tax on capital gains and interest payments on foreign holdings of government and state-owned company bonds; and South Korean regulators have begun to audit lenders utilising foreign currency derivatives.