The Volatile Flow of Hot Money

At a point in the election season when politicians of the same party tend to sweep their differences under the rug, two senior Democrats have sent a strong letter to the Obama administration on a subject unknown to most American voters.

This is the issue of capital controls — various measures governments use to control volatile flows of money across their borders. Iceland, for example, used them to prevent massive capital flight in the midst of their meltdown. Other countries have used them to prevent speculative bubbles. In fact, governments that used capital controls during the 2008 crisis were among the least hard-hit, according to International Monetary Fund research.

However, despite their proven effectiveness in many cases, these policy tools are prohibited by U.S. trade and investment policies. Particularly in the wake of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, it’s an embarrassingly outmoded position that only serves the narrow short-term interests of global financiers and corporations.

Thankfully, two top Democrats are not willing to just overlook the problem. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Representatives Barney Frank and Sander Levin stated they could not support U.S. trade agreements unless the administration produces a “binding interpretation” of U.S. policy clarifying that governments would not be subject to investor lawsuits if they use this policy tool to manage financial volatility.

Frank is the ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee, while Levin is the leading Democrat on trade policy as the ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee. They are part of a growing chorus calling for trade reforms to allow greater flexibility on capital controls. In fact, in their letter to Geithner, they cited a statement signed by more than 250 economists calling for such changes in U.S. policy.

The Frank-Levin letter comes at a key moment. In April, the Obama administration released a new model U.S. bilateral investment treaty. Despite strong calls for reform from public interest representatives on an official advisory body, the new model maintains the old language prohibiting capital controls, with no exceptions for times of financial crisis. Governments that violate such rules face the prospect of being sued by foreign investors in international tribunals.

The administration intends to use this new model as the template for bilateral investment treaties with China, India, and several other countries. It’s also a strong indication of what they’re seeking in ongoing negotiations over a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement involving at least eight other governments.

By stepping up pressure from Congress, Frank and Levin may help alter the outcome of these negotiations. By showing that the views of U.S. officials are not monolithic, they may embolden negotiators from other countries who are seeking a more reasonable approach. Two of the governments involved in the Trans-Pacific talks, Singapore and Chile, sought exemptions for the use of capital controls to prevent crises when they negotiated bilateral trade agreements with the United States about a decade ago. At that time, the Bush administration refused to concede, beyond putting some modest limits on how much investors could demand in compensation for certain types of controls.

Today, we have the opportunity to apply lessons from a financial crisis caused by poorly controlled financial activities. And it’s never been clearer that financial stability at home and abroad is essential for U.S. economic health. When our trading partners fall into financial crisis, we lose export markets and jobs. When hot money makes it impossible to control currency values, it hurts long-term investors and exporters and importers from the United States.

It’s in all of our interest to support a fresh, flexible approach to capital controls.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.

More articles by:

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring
March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy