Of course, re-balancing trade flows would certainly be a positive development, as it would help to unlock the grip that large surplus countries have on world production and enable other countries to more fully partake in the global economy. Such a re-balancing might even trigger a dispersion of manufacturing and other commercial activities away from China and other surplus countries toward other emerging markets and, hopefully, back to developing countries.
From the standpoint of global fairness and economic development, the need to re-balance is a justified, sensible proposition.
Also, many people (and policymakers) seem to think that a re-balancing is necessary in order to prevent another financial crisis from occurring. At the heart of this belief lies the idea that it was the savings of countries running large current account surpluses (read China) that brought down US interest rates and led to the credit boom that caused the crisis. This is the story of the "global savings glut", as Ben Bernanke depicts it. In my view, the story makes for an interesting theory; however, according to the facts, the story is closer to myth than reality.
I've already addressed here the argument suggesting that low interest rates were responsible for the crisis. However, there are several other reasons to doubt the global savings glut story, many of which are found in this paper by Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat of the Bank for International Settlement (BIS) entitled "Global imbalances and the financial crisis: Link or no link?". In the paper, Borio and Disyatat present seven key inconsistencies associated with the claim that savings from China and other countries running current account surpluses had a role in causing the crisis (p. 4).
First, the authors question whether there is a strong link between current account balances and US dollar long-term interest rates. For instance, the paper shows that, while long-term interest rates were increasing between 2005 and 2007, there was no apparent decrease in the US current account deficit.
Second, the authors note that the depreciation of the US dollar during the last decade is inconsistent with the claim that there was increasing demand for US assets from non-residents.
Third, the authors present evidence demonstrating that the link between the US current account deficit and global savings isn't as strong as commonly suggested. For instance, Borio and Disyatat show that, while the deficit began its deterioration in the early 1990s, the world savings rate actually trended downward to the end of 2003. Also, the paper shows that, while the savings rate in emerging markets has been increasing since 2006, the US current account deficit has tended to stabilize or narrow.
Fourth, the authors show that real world long-term interest rates have trended downward since the early 1990s, irrespective of changes in the global savings rate.
Fifth, the authors note that the rise in the savings rate of emerging markets is inconsistent with the strong growth that occurred between 2003 and 2007. If anything, the authors argue, the rise in savings should have instead depressed aggregate demand and slowed global growth.
Sixth, Borio and Disyatat argue that credit-fueled growth was not associated solely with deficit countries. Countries with surpluses, such as Brazil and India, have all had their bouts of credit booms recently.
Lastly, the authors point out that the countries viewed as responsible for the crisis (read again China) were those least affected by the crisis.
While all seven of these explanations are meant to refute the hypothesis of the global savings glut, it is the last two that provide the biggest clues for understanding what really caused the crisis. According to Borio and Disyatat, it's not the large current account deficits but rather the increasing gross capital flows since the 1990s that are to blame. Conceptually, the authors object to the focus on current account balances as an explanatory variable because it fails:
...to distinguish sufficiently clearly between saving and financing. Saving, as defined in the national accounts, is simply income (output) not consumed; financing, a cash-flow concept, is access to purchasing power in the form of an accepted settlement medium (money), including through borrowing. Investment, and expenditures more generally, require financing, not saving. The financial crisis reflected disruptions in financing channels, in borrowing and lending patterns, about which saving and investment flows are largely silent. (p. 1) (original emphasis)In other words, the problem with using current account statistics, the authors claim, is that they capture the net financial flows that arise from trade in real goods and services but exclude the underlying changes in gross flows and their contributions to existing stocks, including those transactions relating to trade in financial assets consisting of the overwhelming majority of international financial activity. Also, the current account is silent about the extent to which domestic investments are financed from abroad.
Borio and Disyatat demonstrate these points by showing how gross capital flows rose from approximately 5 percent of world GDP in 1998 to over 20 percent in 2007, with the bulk of this expansion reflected in flows between advanced economies despite a decline in their share of world trade (p. 13).
Also, the authors show that the most important source of capital inflows into the US before the crisis originated in Europe, not emerging markets (p. 15). Finally, the paper shows the extent to which European banks were prominent in global banking during the last decade:
Since 2000, the outstanding stock of banks’ foreign claims grew from $10 trillion to a peak of around $34 trillion by end-2007, an expansion that is striking even when scaled by global GDP [...]. European banks accounted for a large fraction of this increase. (p. 16)As a result, Borio and Disyatat argue that the causes of the financial crisis cannot be properly understood by looking at changes in national savings rates or real economy indicators such as current account balances. The fact that these indicators do not capture the underlying trend toward increased risk-taking on the part of banks and their involvement in supporting the expansion in the US housing market make them meaningless for understanding the true causes of the crisis.
Instead, the authors conclude that a large part of the blame lies with the banks, as well as the inadequacy of the financial system's regulatory regime and its inability to prevent excessive risk-taking and the development of credit and asset price booms.
Borio, C. and P. Disyatat, "Global imbalances and the financial crisis: Link or no link", Bank for International Settlement Working papers No. 346.