Capital Account Liberalization, the Cost of Capital, and Economic Growth

Capital account liberalization was once seen as an inevitable step along the path to economic development for poor countries. Liberalizing the capital account, it was said, would permit financial resources to flow from capital-abundant countries, where expected returns were low, to capital-scarce countries, where expected returns were high. The flow of resources into the liberalizing countries would reduce their cost of capital, increase investment, and raise output (Fischer, 1998; Summers, 2000). The principal policy question was not whether to liberalize the capital account, but when - before or after undertaking macroeconomic reforms such as inflation stabilization and trade liberalization (McKinnon, 1991). Or so the story went.

In recent years intellectual opinion has moved against liberalization. Financial crises in Asia, Russia and Latin America have shifted the focus of the conversation from when countries should liberalize to if they should do so at all. Opponents of the process argue that capital account liberalization does not generate greater efficiency. Instead, liberalization invites speculative hot money flows and increases the likelihood of financial crises with no discernible positive effects on investment, output, or any other real variable with nontrivial welfare implications (Bhagwhati, 1998; Rodrik, 1998; Stiglitz 2002).

While opinions about capital account liberalization are abundant, facts are relatively scarce. This paper tries to increase the ratio of facts to opinions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a number of developing countries liberalized their stock markets, opening them to foreign investors for the first time. These liberalizations constitute discrete changes in the degree of capital account openness, which allow for a positive empirical description of the cost of capital, investment, and growth during liberalization episodes.