Coming up: The $9 trillion problem of global finance

3D chrome Dollar symbolThat global finance has been in a mess since the start of the global financial crisis in September 2008, is old news now. But the fact that a bigger mess might be awaiting it, should still make for news.
A January 2015 research paper titled
Global dollar credit: links to US monetary policy and leverage authored by Robert N McCauley, Patrick McGuire and Vladyslav Sushko who belong to the Monetary and Economic Department at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), has been doing the rounds in the recent past.
As per this paper : “Since the global financial crisis, banks and bond investors have increased the outstanding US dollar credit to non-bank borrowers outside the United States from $6 trillion to $9 trillion.” In 2000, the number had stood at $2 trillion.
What this clearly tells us is that over the years there has been a huge jump in the total amount of borrowing that has happened in dollars, outside the United States. Hence, more and more foreigners(to the United States) have been borrowing in dollars.
A similar trend has not be seen in case of other major currencies like the euro and the yen. In case of the euro the number stands at $2.5 trillion. For the yen, the number is at just $0.6 trillion. “Moreover, euro credit is quite concentrated in the euro area’s neighbours,” the BIS report points out. Hence, a major part of the world continues to borrow in dollars.
The question is which countries have borrowed all this money that has been lent? As the BIS report points out: “Dollar credit to Brazilian, Chinese and Indian borrowers has grown rapidly since the global financial crisis…Dollar borrowing has reached more than $300 billion in Brazil, $1.1 trillion in China, and $125 billion in India. The rapid growth of bonds relative to loans is more evident in Brazil and India than in China.”
This is happening primarily because domestic interest rates in these countries are on the higher side in comparison to the interest rates being charged on borrowing in dollars. Further, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve of the United States, initiated a huge money printing programme and at the same time decided to maintain the federal funds rate between 0-0.25%. This led to more and more borrowers deciding to borrow in US dollars.
“A low level of the federal funds rate…is associated with higher growth of dollar loans to borrowers outside the US…A 1 percentage point widening in a country’s policy rate relative to the federal funds rate is, on average, associated with 0.03% more dollar bank loans relative to GDP in the following quarter ,” the BIS paper points out. And that explains the rapid expansion of dollar loans.
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
Interestingly, countries which are referred to as emerging market countries have borrowed close to $4.5 trillion of the total $9 trillion. “The emerging market share – mostly Asian – has doubled to $4.5 trillion since the Lehman crisis, including camouflaged lending through banks registered in London, Zurich or the Cayman Islands,” points out Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
in a recent piece in The Telegraph.
So what are the implications of this? First and foremost the world is now more closely connected to the monetary policy practised by the Federal Reserve of the United States. As the BIS paper points out: “Changes in the short-term policy rate are promptly reflected in the cost of $5 trillion in US dollar bank loans.” What this basically means is that if the Federal Reserve chooses to raise the federal funds rate any time in the future, the interest that needs to be paid on the dollar debt will also go up. And with the huge amount of money that has been borrowed, this could precipitate the next level of the crisis, if the borrowers are unable to pay up on the higher interest. One of the dangers that can arise is “if borrowers need to substitute domestic debt for dollar debt in adverse circumstances, then the exchange rate would come under pressure.”
There are other risks as well that need to be highlighted. There is a growing concern that companies in emerging markets have borrowed in dollars to essentially fund carry trades, where they are borrowing in dollars at low interest rates and then lending out that money at higher interest rates in their own country. Hence, nothing constructive is happening with the money that is being borrowed. It is simply being used for speculation.
Many of the companies borrowing in dollars are essentially borrowing for the first time in dollars. And this leads to the question whether the lenders have carried out an adequate amount of due diligence. Further, some of this borrowing may not have been captured in domestic debt statistics of countries. This means that countries may have actually borrowed more than their numbers suggest. Hence, when the time comes to repay this can put pressure on foreign exchange reserves. Lastly, with firms borrowing in dollars, the domestic policy-makers like central banks and finance ministries, may be misled “by the slower pace of domestic bank credit expansion”. This could mean lower interest rates when they should actually be raised. Lower interest rates can lead to more asset bubbles in financial markets.
What is not helping the cause is the fact that the dollar has appreciated rapidly against other major currencies. It has appreciated by around 25% since June 2014 against other major currencies. This means in order to repay the dollar loans or even to pay interest on it, the borrowers need a greater amount of local currency to buy dollars.
To conclude, it is worth repeating what I often say: before things get better, they might just get worse. Keep watching.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Mar 25, 2015