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The Global Economy Without Steroids

WASHINGTON, DC – Economic growth is back. Not only are the United States, Europe, and Japan finally expanding at the same time, but developing countries are also regaining strength. As a result, world GDP will rise by 3.2% this year, up from 2.4% in 2013 – meaning that 2014 may well be the year when the global economy turns the corner.

The fact that the advanced economies are bouncing back is good news for everyone. But, for the emerging and developing economies that dominated global growth over the last five years, it raises an important question: Now, with high-income countries joining them, is business as usual good enough to compete?

The simple answer is no. Just as an athlete might use steroids to get quick results, while avoiding the tough workouts that are needed to develop endurance and ensure long-term health, some emerging economies have relied on short-term capital inflows (so-called “hot money”) to support growth, while delaying or even avoiding difficult but necessary economic and financial reforms. With the US Federal Reserve set to tighten the exceptionally generous monetary conditions that have driven this “easy growth,” such emerging economies will have to change their approach, despite much tighter room for maneuver, or risk losing the ground that they have gained in recent years.

As the Fed’s monetary-policy tightening becomes a reality, the World Bank predicts that capital flows to developing countries will fall from 4.6% of their GDP in 2013 to around 4% in 2016. But, if long-term US interest rates rise too fast, or policy shifts are not communicated well enough, or markets become volatile, capital flows could quickly plummet – possibly by more than 50% for a few months.

This scenario has the potential to disrupt growth in those emerging economies that have failed to take advantage of the recent capital inflows by pursuing reforms. The likely rise in interest rates will put considerable pressure on countries with large current-account deficits and high levels of foreign debt – a result of five years of credit expansion.

Indeed, last summer, when speculation that the Fed would soon begin to taper its purchases of long-term assets (so-called quantitative easing), financial-market pressures were strongest in markets suspected of having weak fundamentals. Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, India, and South Africa – dubbed the “Fragile Five” – were hit particularly hard.

Similarly, some emerging-market currencies have come under renewed pressure in recent days, triggered in part by the devaluation of the Argentine peso and signs of a slowdown in Chinese growth, as well as doubts about these economies’ real strengths amid generally skittish market sentiment. Like the turbulence last summer, the current bout of market pressure is mainly affecting economies characterized by either domestic political tensions or economic imbalances.

But, for most developing countries, the story has not been so bleak. Financial markets in many developing countries have not come under significant pressure – either in the summer or now. Indeed, more than three-fifths of developing countries – many of which are strong economic performers that benefited from pre-crisis reforms (and thus attracted more stable capital inflows like foreign-direct investment) – actually appreciated last spring and summer.

Furthermore, returning to the athletic metaphor, some have continued to exercise their muscles and improve their stamina – even under pressure. Mexico, for example, opened its energy sector to foreign partnerships last year – a politically difficult reform that is likely to bring significant long-term benefits. Indeed, it arguably helped Mexico avoid joining the Fragile Five.

Stronger growth in high-income economies will also create opportunities for developing countries – for example, through increased import demand and new sources of investment. While these opportunities will be more difficult to capture than the easy capital inflows of the quantitative-easing era, the payoffs will be far more durable. But, in order to take advantage of them, countries, like athletes, must put in the work needed to compete successfully – through sound domestic policies that foster a business-friendly pro-competition environment, an attractive foreign-trade regime, and a healthy financial sector.

Part of the challenge in many countries will be to rebuild macroeconomic buffers that have been depleted during years of fiscal and monetary stimulus. Reducing fiscal deficits and bringing monetary policy to a more neutral plane will be particularly difficult in countries like the Fragile Five, where growth has been lagging.

As is true of an exhausted athlete who needs to rebuild strength, it is never easy for a political leader to take tough reform steps under pressure. But, for emerging economies, doing so is critical to restoring growth and enhancing citizens’ wellbeing. Surviving the crisis is one thing; emerging as a winner is something else entirely.

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