Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007  
  Capital Controls: Theory and Practice  
  Carlos F. Liard-Muriente
Central Connecticut State University


From one perspective, capital controls limit the ability of international financiers and multinationals to curtail labor.  However, from the Neoclassical perspective, capital controls are just bad policies. They remove the discipline of the international market, which rewards countries that pursue pro-growth policies and penalizes those that do not.  Nevertheless, history shows that governments use controls regularly.  This paper presents both views, some historical facts regarding capital controls, and some theoretical constructions.

I would summarize the current state of debate as being one in which a growing number of reasonable people now agree that the demands the financial markets place on countries in crisis are impossible to meet, but still believe that imposing currency or capital controls are unthinkable.  They are therefore looking for some palatable middle ground.  Unfortunately, that middle ground does not exist. (Krugman- 1998, p.2)



Persistent capital inflows can cause a real appreciation of a domestic currency, an event that could undermine competitiveness and slowdown growth.  At the same time, monetary policy is jeopardized as unexpected surge in inflows impose either higher inflation, or an excessive nominal appreciation. Government intervention is prompted either to limit inflows likely to be reversed, or to cope with exchange rate appreciation pressures arising from large capital inflows. Capital controls, taxes and sterilization are the best intervention examples.


As an aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, the debate about capital controls emerged as if Keynes was screaming once again: let finance be national!  According to those that favor capital controls, financiers are too powerful, just as they were in the 1920s.  With globalization and international capital flows, financiers roam every corner of the world searching for the last drip of profits. This class has gained enormous power by undermining others, in particular labor.  Today, capital does not need to move at all; the simple threat of moving undermines the fallback position of labor, as Brofrenbrenner (1996) and Epstein (2000) explain. Thus, to correct this imbalance of power, as Crotty and Epstein (1998) argue, a set of progressive policies is needed to control international flows and to achieve sustained full employment and greater equality of income and wealth. According to this view, capital controls limit the ability of international financiers and multinationals to curtail labor.  Also, they advance the objective of full employment at least in the short to medium term.


At the other end, following Neoclassical theory, capital controls are just bad policies because they remove the discipline of the international market which, as the National Center for Policy Analysis (1998) explains, always stands to reward countries that implement effective  pro-growth policies. Nonetheless, governments of many countries have used capital controls.

There are different forms of controls; negative interest rates, controls on foreign investment, lending restrictions, dual exchange rates, just to mention a few.  For example, in Venezuela to cope with inflows during mid-1990s, exchange controls were used. Romania closed its foreign exchange market in 1996.  South Africa postponed the elimination of its remaining controls in 1996. Prohibition of prepayments of foreign loans was the tool used in Brazil in 1994.  In terms of direct controls, Chile and Brazil are two good examples.  Chile imposed a one-year minimum maintenance period for nonresident inflows, while Brazil prohibited some nonresident transactions. As Goh (2005) explains, Malaysia relied on controls to regain monetary autonomy. Furthermore, as Xiao (2005) argues, China has some of the most restrictive control programs and the country is effective in limiting short-term flows, while favoring long-term foreign investment.


In what follows, we develop a summary of the visions in favor and against capital controls, with a presentation of the use of capital controls in the world with some theoretical constructions. The paper ends with some general conclusions.


Capital Controls


Interest to-day rewards no genuine sacrifice, any more than does the rent of land.  The owner of capital can obtain interest because capital is scarce, just as the owner of land can obtain rent because land is scarce. But whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital. (Keynes 1964, p.376)



Capital controls are the set of regulations governing the movement of capital.  Controls are set over both inflows and outflows, and within these two categories, as Nembhard (1996) explains, it is possible to have four additional subcategories: investment and credit regulation, trade restrictions, foreign exchange regulations and quantitative and tax policies. Distinctions should be made between “why” countries adopt controls and their effectiveness. Countries often adopt controls to shelter the domestic economy from volatile capital movements, to regain policy autonomy, to allow domestic full employment and maximize social welfare, to save foreign exchange and to keep finances (domestic and international) under national control. The motivations behind capital controls range from rising revenues, international monetary reform, and buying time to manage a speculative attack.  Controls provide a second-best substitute for inadequate solvency supervision of banks and other financial institutions, reducing the size of volatile short-term foreign credits in relation to the economy, and, as Epstein and Gintis (1992) argue, limiting the power of international financiers.


In a broader sense, we could have two distinctions regarding capital controls: administrative measures on transactions and taxes or tax-like measures on flows.  Administrative controls are out of fashion in today’s world of high-tech trading and liberalized markets.  According to Eichengreen (1996), and Eichengreen and Wyplosz (1996), these types of controls rely on a bureaucratic apparatus in order to function, and this requires time to set up and time to dismantle. Taxes and tax-like measures increase the cost of international financial transactions, while leaving them otherwise unrestricted.  The most known instrument of this type is the so-called Tobin Tax, an ad valorem tax on all spot transactions in foreign exchange markets that falls most heavily on short-term investments.   Variants of this type of instrument include negative interest rates, special reserve requirements on foreign bank deposits and special deposit requirements for banks on their net foreign currency deposits or on their foreign borrowing.


However, a Tobin Tax is not the only instrument available, a preliminary list might include stand-by controls on capital flight (using international institutions to limit destructive capital flight), internationally coordinated transaction tax (a small percentage Tobin Tax on all foreign exchange transactions, to discourage excessive short-term speculation without hurting long-term flows of capital). At the national level, there could be controls on foreign direct investment, restrictions on bank lending to nonresidents to discourage short-term flows, reductions on capital mobility through the tax system, a dual exchange rates to reinforce or even substitute the use of the tax system and quantitative restrictions. Most of the controversy regarding capital controls relates to the associated impact on macroeconomic management, production and consumption.  Controls offer an advantage in terms of consumption in two circumstances.  With cyclical disturbances, as Cardoso and Goldfjan (1998) argue, optimal consumption tends to fluctuate less than disposable income but only if borrowing is available during periods of income shortfalls and then repayment after recovery, or  when foreign savings are used to promote growth, as in the case of Korea between 1960 and the mid­1980s.


Controls are beneficial when they facilitate governments in confronting the interest rates and nominal exchange rate trade off.  That is, central banks cannot set nominal exchange rates and domestic interest rates independently.  If a set of controls does not hurt foreign direct investment (FDI) and other long-term finance, they should be adopted. In general, those who favor taxes on international flows argue that they will raise revenue reduce the exchange rate volatility (discouraging short-term speculation), and enhance the independence of policymakers and defend the exchange rate system. For example, Eichengreen and Wyplosz (1996) estimates range from $36.50 to $56.32 billion per year depending on the rate, which in general are relatively small.

Neoclassical View
  Economist Milton Friedman has pointed out that exchange controls were “perfected” in 1934 by Hjalmar Schacht, Adolph Hitler’s finance minister. (NCPA- 1998, p.2)  

According to Neoclassical theory, controls hurt economic development and welfare.  The impact of selective capital controls on monetary independence relies on the type of intervention regime in the foreign exchange market.  Under a predetermined exchange rate regime, a relevant selective capital control may be unable to reduce the volume of total credits entering the economy, and thus may be unable to increase the degree of monetary autonomy. Controls also create problems with the allocation of resources.  A capital control is a tax over an input (short-term credit), and if some sectors need this input heavily (i.e., small exporters), they are taxed relative to other sectors. Also, as agents search for loopholes in the structure of controls, resources are wasted from a social point of view.


An area of concern is the effect of controls over macroeconomic policy.  The best case study here is Latin America from 1978 to 1982, and in the mid-1990s.  During these periods, countries experienced real appreciation of currencies followed by balance of payment crises.  Capital flows caused real appreciation and with that an inward transfer of resources. Much of the recent analysis on capital controls concentrates on welfare effects, and on the question of whether they are welfare-reducing or instead a second-best tool to confront market failures.  According to Neoclassical theory, it is with liberalization, not with controls, that a positive welfare effect is achieved. Thus, liberalization positions the economy in a potentially higher growth path.


According to Dooley (1996), the welfare improving conditions of a tax on all foreign exchange transaction are stringent. First, a distortion in international capital markets must be identified; the intervention must be effective in discouraging rent-seeking behavior; also the intervention must not discourage welfare-enhancing private behavior.  Finally, the intervention must not be used by governments to increase distortions in other markets.  In other words, controls are of no help since the market is the best channel to obtain Pareto optimal outcomes.


On the one hand, controls are not politically feasible because they will cause market migration if the coverage is not universal and, as Eichengreen (1996) argues,  they will cause assets substitution when only imposed on spots transactions; encouraging the substitution of short-dated forwards and futures.  Arguments go further in the sense that this type of instrument will cause distortion of economic activity and it will confront difficulties of enforceability.  On the other hand, although described as bad medicine by Neoclassical theory, controls have been widely used.

Controls in a Historic Context

  Small open economies are like rowing boats on an open sea.  One cannot predict when they might capsize; bad steering increases the chances of disaster and a leaky boat makes it inevitable. But their chances of being broadsided by a wave are significant no matter how well they are steered and no matter how seaworthy they are.  (Stiglitz- 1998b, p.10)  


During the 1920s, central and private bankers pushed their initiative of restoring the pre-1914 epoch; a liberal international monetary and financial order.  The call was for a return to independent central banks, international gold standard, free capital mobility and balanced budgets. The two most powerful groups, those in New York and London, offered significant loans to countries willing to follow their initiative and by the mid-1920s they were successful.  However, happiness was short-lived.  Confidence started to deteriorate and advanced industrial nations developed initiatives as an effort to preserve what they built, one of which was the Bank of International Settlements which was created, as Heillener (1994) explains, to facilitate central bank cooperation as well as to depoliticize the debt and reparations issue. Nonetheless, they were unable to prevent a complete collapse in 1931.  Huge speculative capital flight and decreased lending from the United States forced some countries to use controls.  As an outcome, a coalition of industrial capitalists, workers, Keynesian-type state officials took over.


  Whereas the bankers had advocated a laissez-faire approach to domestic financial issues and the automatic following of “rules of the game” in the international financial sphere, these new groups favored a more interventionist approach that would make domestic and international finance serve broader political and economic goals. (Helleiner 1994, p.28)  


Among the economists promoting capital controls, Keynes was the most prominent.  He was in favor of controls as a protective tool from the unstable international economy and the possibility of capital flight, which, among other things, causes a decrease in potential growth, erosion in the tax base, and redistribution from poorer to richer groups. From 1945-60 capital controls were unquestioned.  During the immediate postwar period, freedom of capital movements was hardly an issue; international flows of capital through markets were unthinkable. The memories of the hectic 1920s and 1930s were still present and strict controls on international capital movements were needed for financial stability. According to Shafer (1995), developments at the end of the 1950's and early 1960's questioned the logic of the so-called Bretton Woods’ dichotomy, that is, controls for finance and freedom for trade. Capital account liberalization was taken seriously with the establishment of the OECD in 1961.


  Article 2 of the OECD Convention states in part that: Members agree that they will, both individually and jointly . . . pursue their efforts to reduce or abolish obstacles to the exchange of goods and services and current payments and maintain the liberalization of capital movements. (Shafer 1995, p.123)  

Liberalization was the next step and the United States pushed for it on efficiency grounds. However again, as a result of liberalization the speculative virus took over.


  The growth of private international financial activity in the 1960s encourage large speculative capital inflows that proved increasingly disruptive of the Bretton Woods stable exchange rate system by the end of the decade.  In the face of these growing speculative pressures, governments in Western Europe and Japan made clear their preference for controlling capital flows . . . (Helleiner 1994, p.101)  

During 1967-73, water boiled in financial markets once again:

  The devaluation of the French franc and transitional floating of the German mark to a new higher parity in 1969 were two more signals that the international monetary system was flawed.  Suspension of the convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold and the Smithsonian raiment of 1971 failed to restore stability. (Shafer 1995, p.125)  

Then, during this and the subsequent periods, controls were used heavily to confront crises. 1  During the 1960's and 1980's liberalization was heavily promoted, however, the bad experiences that emerged from liberalization2 programs prompted countries to move back to controls. 

  Financial market liberalization is the best predictor of currency crises . . . the channels are capital inflows which pose delicate policy problems, exposure to currency risk, and heightened volatility. (Wyplosz 1998, p.72)  


For example, six years after the Lost Decade almost no debtor country was able to borrow in international markets (Sachs 1989). With capital mobility, as a result of liberalization, national authorities lose control over their own monetary policy, economies become more vulnerable to external shocks, there is less freedom for policy makers to select the exchange rate regime, over-borrowing might result and eventually this could lead to another crisis.  Also, there could be real exchange rate instability and loss of international competitiveness. (Edwards 1995).


This bitter experience pushed countries toward embracing the sweet taste of controls because, as Wyplosz (1998) argues, liberalization of capital movements is usually followed by strong speculative attacks leaving government authorities helpless, even if supported by significant rescue packages.  For example, in the 1995 meeting of the group of R's, which comprises twelve Latin American head of states, the following resolution emerged:

1 See Block (1977) and Heillener (1994) for a more detailed historic presentation. 2 See Nembhard (1996) for an elaborated critique.

  To prevent the damaging effect of volatile capital flows on the member's economies, the signing parties promise to establish specific regulations to preclude the entry of flight capital. (Valdés-Prieto and Soto 1998, p.135)  


The adoption of these types of policies in the 1990s has not been limited to a small number of countries, but rather it has been part of a common policy response to large international capital flows to developing countries in recent years.  The mirror image of capital inflows is an unsustainable current account deficit. According to Neoclassical theory, inflows should dry out and with that, the exchange rate should depreciate, inflated assets prices should decline and domestic spending should go back to sustainable levels. However, as Table 1shows, this is not an operational feature of financial markets.

 Table 1: Pre-Crisis Deficits and Real Appreciation Averages (1990-97)







Real exchange rate appreciation (%)






Current account (% of GDP)






Source: Wyplosz (1998)

The net long-term private capital flows to developing countries rose six fold from 1990 to a record $256 billion in 1997 while the short-term debt in mid 1997 was 360.6 billion, as Stiglitz (1998b) argues, without volatile international capital flows, the East Asian crisis of 1997 would probably have been less significant than the Thai episode of 1983 or South Korean crisis of 1980.

Intervention has been justified on the basis of systemic risk, a typical example of an externality. This occurs when the private risk is smaller than the social risk or cost of investing in a country, difference that tends to be strong with a short-term speculative capital flows.  While long-term foreign direct investment is beneficial and tends to be stable, short-term capital might not bring additional benefits.


As Nembhard (1996) argues, countries move to controls as crises emerge following large inflows of capital and away from them otherwise, when liberalization is presented as the right alternative. By the end of 1988, only 14 percent of the IMF member countries were reported as having no type of capital control. However, by the end of 1994 this number was 28 per cent (Yashiv, 1997).
 ... deep, efficient, and robust financial systems are essential for growth and stability. But left to themselves, financial markets will not become deep, efficient, or robust. The government plays an essential role, both in directly overseeing and regulating the financial system and also in establishing the correct incentives to encourage prudential and productive behavior. (Stiglitz- 1998a, p.2)


In historical perspective, financial crises and economic downturns are not a new phenomena in capitalistic societies. (Stiglitz- 1998a, p.1)


In the world there will be countries that implement capital controls (C) and countries without capital controls (NC).  Countries without controls will perform better among themselves and when confronting countries with controls. This will be the case, following Neoclassical theory, because market outcomes are Pareto optimal and countries with controls will be characterized by rent-seeking behavior when they confront countries without controls.  Thus, “a” in Table 2 below is the payoff a country without capital controls (no government intervention in capital markets) gets when confronting a similar country.  This is the highest possible payoff.  This should be the case, following mainstream theory, because market outcomes are superior.  However, it is likely that a country without controls will confront a country with controls, in which case the payoff for the country without controls is better than the country with controls.  Again, following Neoclassical theory, the country following market fundamentals will get the rewards.  However, this payoff should not be as good as when confronting another country without controls.  In this situation, the no controls country is confronting some inefficiencies arising from the “bureaucratic” apparatus in place in the country with controls (a “lost in translation” effect).  Everything is smoother among countries with no controls (the market works best); it is not as smooth when one country has controls in place (thus, a > b).  Although not as smoother, payoff “b” is greater than payoff “c” because the country with no controls is following the market and the country with controls is following the government’s dictum.  In other words, payoff “b” reflects the allocation superiority of the market over the government (payoff “c”), and thus, a > b > c.  Finally, again following Neoclassical theory, two heavily bureaucratic countries confronting each other (two countries with capital controls) is the worst outcome of all, and thus a > b > c >d. 

Table 2: Payoff Matrix for Countries with and without Controls


No Controls (N)


No Controls (N)

a, a

b, c


c, b

d , d


Clearly, from Table 2, the dominant strategy for a country that follows Neoclassical theory is to avoid implementing or dismantling any capital controls that are in place.   However, if this was the case, no country in the world will ever impose capital controls and we know for a fact that this is not the case.  The problem with these payoffs is the failure to incorporate the pattern of inflows of capital, followed by a crisis and then the imposition of controls as history shows. Let us define as the likelihood of the emergence of crises, and P as the percentage of countries with capital controls.  Now, as mentioned earlier, when crises arise, countries move to controls. Thus, defining the respective payoff for countries with controls (C) and countries without controls (NC) as:



Then what we have is the following:


In other words, in the event of no crises or, the payoff for countries with no controls is higher. However, as crises emerge or, the payoff for countries with controls is then higher, as they have the tools to cope with the storm. This pattern is depicted in Figure 1 using the payoffs from Table 2.  Here again, with an increase in the likelihood of a crisis (or what is the same, an increase in ά ), the expected payoff for countries with controls increases.  By the same logic, the expected return for countries without controls decreases.


Figure 1: Expected Payoffs



The result arising from Figure 1 is that there is no equilibrium where countries will settle. An increase in the likelihood of a crisis increases the attractiveness of controls and vice versa.  Thus, the imperative question is:  What events will trigger crises?   It will be difficult to argue that well-defined policies designed to contain footloose capital are the culprit.


The type of international monetary reform necessary to neutralize inflationary pressures and to facilitate global crisis management would involve both strengthening of supranational institutions and a higher level of economic coordination among the developed nations. (Block- 1977, p.211).

In most Walrasian models, controls are bad policy because markets are the best solution. Furthermore, since enforcement is difficult, controls are ineffective and inefficient. The problem here is the notion of “first-best,” which implies that free capital movements and free trade are Pareto optimal.  With distortions, first-best solutions are not achievable.  Thus, we will have to limit ourselves with policies that attempt to confront distortions, in other words, second-best alternatives.

If distortions are viewed as a logical result of the system; when room is made for non-Neoclassical assumptions then we have a different story to tell; a story where controls, in conjunction with other policies, are a useful tool. The logical step to follow is a comprehensive development of the usefulness of controls, since the analysis heretofore has been unsatisfactory, even in the pro-controls camp.  Contrary to Neoclassical theory, in Keynesian analysis, for example, controls are useful but only in the short run as a mechanism for stabilization.  But here, controls are analyzed as an aside, rather than a grand plan of the state. Furthermore, as Nembhard (1996) explains, Neo-structuratlists and Marxists acknowledge the need for controls, but rarely address it directly.


Controls are often presented as short-term tools to confront emergencies, but why they are established is seldom asked and rarely are they presented as part of a set of state polices. Thus, conventional heterodox theories help little in understanding why so many countries implement controls. A comprehensive research agenda should bring to the analysis successful stories of many countries that implemented long term controls as part of a wider development plan.  Thus, key to this analysis is the fact that, to be successful, controls must be part of a broader development strategy. According to Rodrick (1997), Epstein (2000), and Liard-Muriente (2005), the effectiveness of national policy tools decreases with globalization.   Thus, capital controls, in combination with other set of reforms (i.e., domestic reforms), will reduce the frequency and magnitude of crises. Consequently, what we need to confront international financial turmoil is better coordination and cooperation among countries.


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