Manoj Pradhan

Alan M. TaylorManoj Pradhan, left, a global EM economist, is an executive director at Morgan Stanley. Alan M. Taylor, right, a senior advisor at Morgan Stanley, is a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. The opinions expressed are their own.

Policymakers have fretted about global imbalances for nearly a decade, but little consensus or clarity has emerged. Some saw problems created by surplus countries, others deficit countries. Many feared a fiscal-cum-balance of payments crisis in the U.S., but the crisis we got reflected private/financial failures. G20 proposals for collective action remain a work in progress. Uncoordinated policy actions triggered talk of currency wars.

As these debates drone on, there may be less cause for concern about global imbalances. Emerging market-developed market (EM-DM) relationships may revert to a more typical historical pattern. We highlight key areas of global adjustment in this scenario: shifts in capital flows, exchange rates and real interest rates.

The peculiar global macro configuration of the last 15 years was unprecedented. Capital flowed “uphill” from poor to rich countries — EMs saved more than they invested, the excess showing up as current account surpluses (net exports of EM goods) and financial outflows (net acquisition of DM assets). But digging deeper exposed a crucial fact: private capital still flowed “downhill” to EM economies in line with intuition, but offset by even larger “uphill” official flows, the reserves bought by EM central banks and sovereign wealth funds.

Despite allegations of strategic undervaluation, mercantilism, and the like, EMs had good reason to accumulate reserves as a precautionary measure. They had learned painful lessons from past crises. A loss of capital market access or sudden stop, or a bank/currency run or sudden flight, could trigger a vicious risk spiral linking currency crashes, banking panics and default.