Squeezed by sanctions over Ukraine and the lowest oil prices since 2009, Russia has become the biggest potential target for capital controls. Over $150 billion left the country last year compared to $61 billion in 2013. While the Russian government has repeatedly denied that restrictions on capital were being considered, economists in a Bloomberg survey in February saw a 30 percent chance they’d be imposed. The only countries to put controls in place in 2014 were Belarus, Ghana and Ukraine, which acted as its conflict with Russia grew. In February, Ukraine tightened restrictions, imposing curbs on purchases of foreign currencies. Similar measures were dismantled in Belarus and Ghana soon after they were put in place. Other countries rolling back limits included Argentina and Venezuela, where a currency crunch caused shortages of food and medicine and fueled the world’s highest inflation, and Cyprus, which in 2013 became the first country in the euro area to impose capital controls during a banking crisis. Iceland took steps in December to unwind six-year-old restrictions on the krona when it granted an exemption from capital controls to LBI, a unit that represents creditors in the failed Landsbanki bank. In China, the government is starting to relax controls that have anchored the economy for three decades.
To discourage foreign money from flooding a national economy or leaving it high and dry, a government can restrict withdrawals from banks, limit foreign-exchange transactions or tax the purchase of stocks and bonds. These measures were uncommon until the 1930s, when countries started using them to keep scarce resources from flowing away during the Great Depression. After World War II, rules restricting capital flows became an established part of a world financial system. Only in 1971, when U.S. President Richard Nixon abandoned the dollar’s peg to gold, did major currencies start floating and countries lift controls. A new consensus favoring open capital markets lasted until the Asian financial crises of the late 1990s provided provisional evidence that capital controls could work: Malaysia recovered swiftly after imposing restrictions in September 1998. (South Korea recovered too, without them.) By 2010, the IMF was ready to acknowledge that capital controls can forestall financial crises.
Many economists now say there’s a time and place for limited capital controls. Still hotly debated is how well they work. Few doubt that capital flows across borders usually provide financing for high-return investment and bring technology, innovation and growth. Nor that the dismal economic performance of countries such as Venezuela and Argentina over the past few years shows that enduring capital controls distort allocation of resources and discourage investment. Limited controls on capital inflows are thought to prevent currency overvaluation and financial bubbles. In a financial crisis, restrictions on outflows give policy makers some breathing space to address the shortcomings in their economies and ward off panic selling. Controls are neither foolproof nor cost free. Investors find ways around them through financial innovation and bribery and they can prevent productive foreign investment. Then there’s the impossible trilemma — one cannot simultaneously have free capital flow and control of interest and exchange rates. Something has to give.
The Reference Shelf
- Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reviewed the history of capital controls in 1999.
- Economist Paul Krugman went against the conventional wisdom by endorsing Malaysia’s capital controls during the Asian Financial crisis.
- The IMF revealed its historical shift in its view toward capital controls in 2010.
- Economists including Kristin Forbes study the spillover effects of capital controls.
(This QuickTake includes a corrected reference to the “impossible trilemma.”)