Friday, January 12, 2018

An Obsession With Surpluses

No, I’m not addressing the government deficit. Rather this is about Malaysia’s (slowly) diminishing current account surplus. I wrote about it at length last year (link), but here’s another flavour of the same argument (abstract):

Current Account Deficits:The Australian Debate
Rochelle Belkar, Lynne Cockerell and Christopher Kent

This paper documents the clear change of view, which has taken place in Australia over the past three decades or so, concerning the relevance of the current account deficit for policy. Historical experience under a fixed exchange rate regime suggested that large persistent deficits were unsustainable and could leave the economy vulnerable to sudden reversals in sentiment. These concerns persisted after the floating of the Australian dollar and financial deregulation, and it was thought that all arms of policy should help to rein in the then much larger current account deficits. However, these policies were shown to be ineffective and, by the early 1990s, the argument that current account deficits represent the optimal outcomes of decisions made by ‘consenting adults’ gained wide support. This paper presents some empirical evidence consistent with optimal smoothing in the face of temporary shocks; the persistence of the deficit is attributed to a modest degree of impatience relative to the rest of the world. Although it is now widely accepted that policy should not seek to influence the current account balance, the issue of external vulnerability remains of interest. Here, country-specific considerations are important, and it is argued that the factors that have made Australia relatively resilient to external shocks are also those that helped to attract foreign capital in the first place.

It's an old paper, but still relevant. I'll note in passing here two things:

  1. The underlying argument is similar to my own – whether the current account is in surplus or deficit (and the extent of that imbalance) is primarily driven by factors in the domestic economy, not the external sector or the exchange rate;
  2. Australia now has almost no FX reserves to speak of, despite being heavily exposed to trade and commodity prices, and a foreign presence in their bond market that exceeds ours. IIRC, they barely have one month cover of retained imports.

The implication is that all adjustments take place in prices instead of levels i.e. the AUD exchange rate adjusts, not their level of reserves. Despite this difference, the MYRAUD cross rate is one of the most stable I’ve ever seen outside of a pegged exchange rate. Or to put it more bluntly – despite not having accumulated “insurance” (FX reserves) against capital outflows, and thus deliberately exposing the exchange rate to greater volatility, the AUD does not appear to be any more volatile than the MYR is. There was an exception to this, running roughly from October 2008-May 2009, coinciding with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and running to the beginnings of the global recovery. But this was more the exception that proved the rule.


Rochelle Belkar, Lynne Cockerell and Christopher Kent, "Current Account Deficits:The Australian Debate", Reserve Bank of Australia Discussion Paper 2007-02, March 2007

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