A usual argument against the use of capital controls as a prudential measure is that it is always better to tackle problems at their source rather than trying to deal with symptoms. This is called the principle of economic targeting in Economics, one of the discipline’s most powerful teachings. The problem with indirect remedies is that they create problems themselves, “by-product distortions” in Econ-speak. With capital controls, those would be corruption and the discouragement of trade and other flows that are not necessarily a problem.
Hyun Song Shin essentially relies on this principle when he argues against capital controls (in a speech yesterday in Washington, DC):
The lesson is to distinguish underlying causes from outward symptoms. Yes, the 2008 financial crisis was in large part a cross-border phenomenon, but focusing on capital flows confuses the symptoms (capital flows) from the underlying causes (excess leverage and funding risk). If the problem is excessive bank leverage and funding risk, then address these risks directly with traditional microprudential, or regulatory tools.
This argument always reminds me of opponents’ argument about why gun controls are not needed: “it’s not guns that kill people; it’s people.” The implication is that we should target the criminals and not the guns. Of course, if we could perfectly regulate the behavior of future criminals, we would not need controls on the sale of guns directly. But most of us are reasonable enough to realize that we have imperfect control over the behavior of gun owners and so we think direct gun controls make sense.
Similarly, if one could design the perfect prudential regulatory regime, targeting all the relevant distortions at source and adjusting pre-emptively to all future financial innovations, then indeed we would not need direct controls on capital flows. But if we cannot, and we surely cannot, we need to work on as many margins available to us as we can. That is why capital controls belong in the arsenal of sensible policy makers.
One of my favorite aphorisms is “the world is second best, at best” (due to Avinash Dixit). It tells us that first-best logic can be misleading in the real world. Interestingly, Shin himself starts his speech by reminding us of the second-best theorem. But then he goes on to apply a first-best argument to dismiss capital controls.