Category Archives: Financial Trilemmas

29/6/18: Multilateralism and the Impossible Policy Trilemmas

"Global governance requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle the hardest shared problems. With multilateralism under attack, the narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions."

Can Multilateralism Adapt?, Jean Pisani-Ferry.

International Political Trilemma applies to both monetary and fiscal policy dimension by making it impossible for modern societies to combine:

  1. Monetary sovereignty in the form of free capital mobility, with international political stability and political autonomy of democratic systems. In simple terms, free capital mobility means that capital flows will reflect economic and demographic conditions prevailing in the specific society. If these conditions deteriorate, triggering capital outflows (perhaps due to monetary accommodation response to ageing population), the society can respond either through imposing capital controls (preserving its standing in international political institutions, and allowing its democratic institutions to remain robust) or it can pursue non0-democratic suppression of its own population (allowing capital to flow out of the economy and not imposing cost of resulting economic decline onto international partners). Alternatively, the country can continue allowing outflow of capital and retain democracy by blaming the external shocks and restricting its engagement with international political institutions.
  2. Fiscal sovereignty in the form of free capital mobility, international political stability and autonomous fiscal policy. In simple terms, the above monetary sovereignty simply transfers democratic autonomy failure to fiscal policy failure.

To my students at TCD and MIIS, these are familiar from the following summary charts:

For more academically inclined readers, here is my paper summarising these Trilemmas and putting them into the context of the euro area harmonisation: Gurdgiev, Constantin, Euro After the Crisis: Key Challenges and Resolution Options (May 30, 2016). Prepared for: GUE/NGL Group, European Parliament, October 2015:

It is, generally, not hard to find examples of the two trilemmas presence in a range of historical shocks in the past. More recent examples, however, are harder to come by due to time lags required to see these trilemmas in action. Pisani-Ferry's quote above hints at such.

During the 1990s, "After an eight-decade-long hiatus, the global economy was being reunified. Economic openness was the order of the day. ...The message was clear: globalization was not just about liberalizing flows of goods, services and capital but about establishing the rules and institutions required to steer markets, foster cooperation, and deliver global public goods."

As Pisano-Ferry argues, today, "Despite a decade of talks, the global trade negotiations launched in 2001 have gotten nowhere. The Internet has become fragmented and could break up further. Financial regionalism is on the rise. The global effort to combat climate change rests on a collection of non-binding agreements, from which the United States has withdrawn...  The very principles of multilateralism, a key pillar of global governance, seem to have become a relic from a distant past."

"...let’s face it: today’s problems did not start with Trump." In fact, the problems started with the above trilemmas. Or put differently, the problems are not an outrun of bad policies or choices, but the natural result of the impossibility of combining the conflicting policies objectives and institutions. "There is no shortage of explanations. An important one is that many participants in the international system are having second thoughts about globalization. A widespread perception in advanced countries is that the rents from technological innovation are being eroded precipitously... A second explanation is that the US strategy toward Russia and China has failed... neither Russia nor China has converged politically... Third, the US is unsure that a rules-based system offers the best framework to manage its rivalry with China. [and]... Finally, global rules look increasingly outdated. Whereas some of their underlying principles – starting with the simple idea that issues are addressed multilaterally rather than bilaterally – are as strong as ever, others were conceived for a world that no longer exists. Established trade negotiation practices make little sense in a world of global value chains and sophisticated services. And categorizing countries by their development level is losing its usefulness, given that some of them combine first-class global companies and pockets of economic backwardness."

In simple terms, the world became more complex and more fragile because we tried to make it less complex and more centralized (hegemonic positioning of the U.S. in Bretton Woods setting), while making it also more multilateral (through financial, economic, trade and human capital integration).

Pisano-Ferry offers a 50,000 feet level view on the solution to the problems: "the solution is neither to cultivate the nostalgia of yesterday’s order nor to place hope in loose, ineffective forms of international cooperation. International collective action requires rules... The narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions." In other words, one cannot tackle trijemmas directly (correct view), but one can defuse them by limiting each node of the desired policies. E.g. less democracy here - to offset pressure from demographic of ageing, less capital mobility there - to reduce the speed of capital flows across the borders and lower volatility of financialized investment, less fiscal sovereignty - to provide better buffers for shocks arising in financial and economic systems, and less international institutions - to allow for more flexible rebalancing of monetary, trade and fiscal policies.

The problem with this is it requires for the hegemony (the U.S.) to put a hard stop to imposing its preferred solutions onto the rest of the world and international institutions. Or, put differently, the hegemony must stop being a hegemony. Good luck squaring that with American vision of the world a-la Rome 4.0.

23/1/16: Financial Globalisation and Tradeoffs Under Common Currency

A paper I recently cited in a research project for the European Parliament that is worth reading: "Trilemmas and Tradeoffs: Living with Financial Globalization" by Maurice Obstfeld. Some of my research on the matter, yet to be published (once the EU Parliament group clears it) is covered here: and see slides 5-8 here:

This is one of the core papers one simply must be acquainted with if you are to begin understanding the web of contradictions inherent in the structure of modern financial flows (in the case of Obstfeld's paper, these are linked to the Emerging Markets, but much of it also applies to the euro).

The paper "evaluates the capacity of emerging market economies (EMEs) to moderate the domestic impact of global financial and monetary forces through their own monetary policies. Those EMEs able to exploit a flexible exchange rate are far better positioned than those that devote monetary policy to fixing the rate – a reflection of the classical monetary policy trilemma.” The problem, as Obstfeld correctly notes, is that in modern environment, “exchange rate changes alone do not insulate economies from foreign financial and monetary shocks. While potentially a potent source of economic benefits, financial globalization does have a downside for economic management. It worsens the tradeoffs monetary policy faces in navigating among multiple domestic objectives.”

Per Obstfeld, the knock on effect is that “This drawback of globalization raises the marginal value of additional tools of macroeconomic and financial policy. Unfortunately, the availability of such tools is constrained by a financial policy trilemma, [which] posits the incompatibility of national responsibility for financial policy, international financial integration, and financial stability.”

This, of course, is quite interesting. Value of own (independent) tools beyond flexible exchange rates rises with globalisation, which normally incentivises more (not less) activism and interference from domestic (or regional - in the case of monetary integration) regulators, supervisors and enforcers. In other words, Central Banks and Fin Regs grow in size (swelling to design, fulfil and enforce new ‘functions’). And all of this expensive activity take place amidst the environment where none of can lead to effective and tangible outcomes, because of the presence of the second trilemma: in a globalised world, national regulators are a waste of space (ok, we can put it more politically correctly: they are highly ineffective).

Give this another view from this argument: ‘national’ above is not the same as sovereign. Instead, it is ‘national’ per currency definition. So ECB is ‘national’ in these terms. Now, recall, that in recent years we have been assured that we’ve learned lessons of the recent crisis, and having learned them, we created a new, very big, very expensive and very intrusive tier of supervision and regulation - the tier of ECB and centralised European Banking regulatory framework of European Banking Union (EBU). But, wait, per Obstfeld - that means preciously little, folks, as long as Europe remains integrated into globalised financial markets.

Obstfeld’s paper actually is a middle ground, believe it or not, in the wider debate. As noted by Obstfeld: “My argument that independent monetary policy is feasible for financially open EMEs, but limited in what it can achieve, takes a middle ground between more extreme positions in the debate about monetary independence in open economies. On one side, Woodford (2010, p. 14) concludes: “I find it difficult to construct scenarios under which globalization would interfere in any substantial way with the ability of domestic monetary policy to maintain control over the dynamics of inflation.” His pre-GFC analysis, however, leaves aside financial-market imperfections and views inflation targeting as the only objective of monetary control. On the other side, Rey (2013) argues that the monetary trilemma really is a dilemma, because EMEs can exercise no monetary autonomy from United States policy (or the global financial cycle) unless they impose capital controls.”

Now, set aside again the whole malarky about Emerging Markets there… and think back to ECB… If Rey is correct, ECB can only assure functioning of EBU by either abandoning rate policy independence or by abandoning global integration (imposing de facto or de sure capital controls).

Of course, in a way, bondholders’ bail-ins rules and depositors bail-ins rules and practices - the very sort of things the EBU and ECB’s leadership rest so far - are a form of capital controls. Extreme form. So may be we are on that road to ‘resolving trilemmas’ already?..

Have a nice day... and happy banking...