Remember the “global savings glut” of the mid-aughts? This was Ben Bernanke’s explanation for the large U.S. current account deficit as of 2005. It’s also an important part of the backdrop for the housing boom and the financial crisis. What happened is that in the late-1990s, many East Asian countries suffered from a classic financial panic. The international investment community, once bullish on places like Thailand and South Korea, suddenly turned pessimistic. Currencies collapsed, and borrowers were left awash in debt. The IMF stepped in to prevent the global financial system from falling apart, but in exchange for liquidity assistance, it imposed tough austerity conditions on the states in need of rescue.
The imposition of austerity is in part supposed to avoid moral hazard problems. And in the case of Asia, it worked. Arguably it worked a bit too well. The entire region became obsessed with amassing foreign exchange reserves to ensure that it would never again need to go hat in hand to the IMF. That created an unusually large level of global demand for AAA-rated dollar-denominated financial assets which helped kick off all manner of events in the American economy.
The IMF qua IMF seems to have decided that this was a mistake, and under Dominique Strauss-Kahn and now Christine Lagarde has largely been pushing a non-austere agenda. But Angela Merkel, European Commissioner Olli Rehn, and the European Central Bank seem to be re-inventing the late-’90s IMF prescription for economic recovery. They’re afraid of creating a situation in which poor economic management isn’t adequately punished, so they’re determined to make sure that troubled European states enact unpopular austerity packages in order to get help even if they need to remove democratically elected governments from office to get the job done. Whatever else this does, it should certainly succeed in persuading European governments that stockpiling foreign exchange isn’t just for Asians anymore. If the world succeeds in coming out through the other side of this crisis, you should expect to see even more countries joining the perpetual surplus brigades leading to even more demand for safe dollar denominated financial assets. That, in turn, means either big U.S. budget deficits or else some bold new innovations in financial engineering to meet the demand.