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 (Stanley Fischer, 1998; Lawrence H. 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 (Ronald I. 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 (Jagdish Bhagwhati, 1998; Dani Rodrik, 1998; Joseph 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 1980's and early 1990's 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.

Figure 1 previews the central message that the rest of this paper develops in more detail. The cost of capital falls when developing countries liberalize the stock market. Since the cost of capital falls, investment should also increase, as profit-maximizing firms drive down the marginal product of capital to its new lower cost. Figure 2 is consistent with this prediction. Liberalization leads to a sharp increase in the growth rate of the capital stock. Finally, as a direct consequence of growth accounting, the increase in investment should generate a temporary increase in the growth rate of output per worker. Figure 3 confirms that the growth rate of output per worker rises in the aftermath of liberalization.

While the figures do no harm to the efficiency view of capital-account liberalization, a number of caveats are in order. For example, it is legitimate to interpret a fall in the dividend yield (Fig. 1) as a decline in the cost of capital, if there is no change in the expected future growth rate of dividends at the time of liberalization. But stock-market liberalizations are usually accompanied by other economic reforms that may increase the expected future growth rate of output and dividends (Henry, 2000a, b). Because liberalizations do not occur in isolation, it is important to think carefully about how to interpret the data. Neoclassical theory provides a good starting point for framing the issues.