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The Biggest Emerging Market Debt Problem Is in America

A decade after the subprime bubble burst, a new one seems to be taking its place in the market for corporate collateralized loan obligations. A world economy geared toward increasing the supply of financial assets has hooked market participants and policymakers alike into a global game of Whac-A-Mole.

CAMBRIDGE – A recurrent topic in the financial press for much of 2018 has been the rising risks in the emerging market (EM) asset class. Emerging economies are, of course, a very diverse group. But the yields on their sovereign bonds have climbed markedly, as capital inflows to these markets have dwindled amid a general perception of deteriorating conditions.

Historically, there has been a tight positive relationship between high-yield US corporate debt instruments and high-yield EM sovereigns. In effect, high-yield US corporate debt is the emerging market that exists within the US economy (let’s call it USEM debt). In the course of this year, however, their paths have diverged (see Figure 1). Notably, US corporate yields have failed to rise in tandem with their EM counterparts.

What’s driving this divergence? Are financial markets overestimating the risks in EM fixed income (EM yields are “too high”)? Or are they underestimating risks in lower-grade US corporates (USEM yields are too low)?

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    A Global Economy Without a Cushion

    Stephen S. Roach

    From 1990 to 2008, annual growth in world trade was fully 82% faster than world GDP growth. Now, however, reflecting the unusually sharp post-crisis slowdown in global trade growth, this cushion has shrunk dramatically, to just 13% over the 2010-19 period, leaving the world economy more vulnerable to all-too-frequent shocks.

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