The Hidden Debt Burden of Emerging Markets

LIMA – As central bankers and finance ministers from around the globe gather for the International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings here in Peru, the emerging world is rife with symptoms of increasing economic vulnerability. Gone are the days when IMF meetings were monopolized by the problems of the advanced economies struggling to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the discussion has shifted back toward emerging economies, which face the risk of financial crises of their own.

While no two financial crises are identical, all tend to share some telltale symptoms: a significant slowdown in economic growth and exports, the unwinding of asset-price booms, growing current-account and fiscal deficits, rising leverage, and a reduction or outright reversal in capital inflows. To varying degrees, emerging economies are now exhibiting all of them.

The turning point came in 2013, when the expectation of rising interest rates in the United States and falling global commodity prices brought an end to a multi-year capital-inflow bonanza that had been supporting emerging economies’ growth. China’s recent slowdown, by fueling turbulence in global capital markets and weakening commodity prices further, has exacerbated the downturn throughout the emerging world.

These challenges, while difficult to address, are at least discernible. But emerging economies may also be experiencing another common symptom of an impending crisis, one that is much tougher to detect and measure: hidden debts.