Did Derivatives Help China’s Poor?

I’ve seen some pretty strong claims on behalf of derivatives in my time, but this one, from the Economist, is definitely among the strongest:

The market for derivatives also facilitated investment in developing countries. That investment brought millions of people in countries such as India and China out of poverty.

Methinks the anonymous blogger has overreached here. Derivatives can do many things (including, of course, blow up), but poverty reduction is not on that particular list.

I spent most of the past decade writing about investment in developing countries generally, and in Latin America specifically. I heard a lot about stock markets, and even more about bond markets. I even occasionally heard about CDS markets in certain emerging-market credits. But I’m finding it really hard to think of an example of derivatives facilitating investment in emerging markets.

The closest I can come would be simple currency swaps: companies being able to borrow in dollars and swap the proceeds back into pesos to reduce their FX risk. But that’s not the kind of financial engineering that the Economist is talking about.

What’s more, the story of India and China is very much one of development financed domestically, out of savings, rather than development financed internationally — total capital inflows into the two countries were very small relative to total investment. Which would imply that if derivatives helped to facilitate investment in these countries, they would be domestic, not international. And I don’t think that India and China have particularly sophisticated domestic derivatives markets.

So color me skeptical on this claim, at least unless and until someone gives me a few empirical examples. Poverty reduction in India and China took place the old-fashioned way, through GDP growth, rather than via sophisticated financial derivatives.

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