High foreign exchange reserves have, in the current global recession, saved Asian countries (including India) from the travails they suffered in the Asian financial crisis of 1997-2000. So, they must aim for rising forex reserves in future too, right? Wrong.
In truth, high Asian forex reserves are an important reason for the current recession. High reserves promise safety in a storm. But beyond a point this safety becomes illusory, because rising forex reserves worsen the global imbalances that have precipitated the recession.
The global recession has many roots. One is the erosion of traditional US household prudence. US households used to save 6% of their disposable income. But in recent years they went on a borrowing and spending spree, and household savings dropped to virtually zero. Corporations and financiers also ran up record debts, partly to buy assets such as houses, stocks and commodities. This created huge bubbles in all three markets.
When the bubbles finally burst, US households, corporations and financiers found themselves in dire straits. Many financial giants were rescued by the government. Meanwhile households, sobered by the turn of events, started saving 4% of disposable income, up from zero. More saving meant less spending, and made the recession deep and sharp.
Most Asians are smugly blaming US imprudence and loose financial regulation for the crisis, while portraying themselves as innocent victims. Yet they must share the guilt too. US profligacy did not arise in a vacuum. It arose in part because Asian insistence on high forex reserves meant that they poured dollars into the US to buy US securities. This flood of dollars from Asia drove down US interest rates, making it very attractive to borrow. That spurred the borrowing spree, and the accompanying bubbles.
Historically, rich countries had surplus savings, manifested in a trade surplus. Poor countries lacked savings, manifested in trade deficits, with the deficit being plugged by an inflow of dollars from rich to poor countries. For the world as a whole, current account surpluses and deficits of countries must necessarily balance. Historically, the surpluses of rich countries were offset by the deficits of poor ones.
But after the Asian financial crisis, something strange happened. Asian countries, above all China, began generating huge savings surpluses, manifested in huge current account surpluses. Many used undervalued exchange rates to artificially create trade surpluses, which were then invested in US treasuries (that is what foreign exchange reserves are).
However, poor Asians could not run huge surpluses unless others were willing to run huge deficits. Remarkably, the rich US began to do so. This arose partly from the sophistication of its financial system, which found many ways—too many, in fact– of converting the flood of money from Asia into a borrowing and spending spree.
This sharp rise in US spending boosted the global economy, and created the record global GDP growth in 2003-08. US demand sucked in huge quantities of manufactures and services from Asia, above all from China. Asian manufacturing sucked in huge quantities of commodities from Africa and Latin America, raising incomes there too.
Alas, this boom was based on huge global imbalances that had to be corrected at some point. No country, not even the rich US, could keep running gargantuan trade deficits forever, to offset the surpluses of Asia. US asset bubbles burst, the boom ended, and US spending and imports plummeted.
Ending the consequent recession means reducing global imbalances to manageable proportions. Americans will have to save more, spend less and export more. Asian countries, especially China, will have to consume more, save less, and export less. This re-balancing will restore global balance, and enable global growth to rise sustainably again.
However, such re-balancing means that Asian countries must stop piling up ever-rising forex reserves (and trade surpluses). Such reserves represent excessive saving, excessive exports and insufficient imports. Excess forex reserves have provided apparent safety to Asian countries in a recessionary crisis, yet are also a cause of that very crisis.
What will happen if Asians insist on trying to keep savings and forex reserves high? Well, if Asians keep savings high and Americans and Europeans do so too, then world demand will collapse and the recession will become a Depression. Asians must recognize that high forex reserves serve as a safety cushion only up to a point, and beyond that exacerbate global imbalances that threaten disaster. Saving too much can be as harmful as saving too little. Unless Asian countries recognize this and go slow on future reserve accumulation, the recession may become worse than anyone dares imagine today.