How Fragile are Emerging Markets?

CAMBRIDGE – Emerging-market equities and exchange rates are again under severe downward pressure, but are the underlying economies really as fragile as global traders seem to fear? The short answer, for a few, is probably “yes,” but for most, “not just yet.”

For most countries, what we are seeing is a recalibration as investors incorporate the risk that China’s GDP might rise more slowly, the US Federal Reserve might start tightening monetary conditions more quickly, and policy backsliding in many countries might undermine potential growth. At the same time, Europe’s massive shift to a trade surplus (a key factor underpinning the region’s new-found stability) and the Japanese yen’s sharp depreciation are among myriad factors squeezing countries seeking to rein in current-account deficits.

It seems like only yesterday that Goldman Sachs analysts were celebrating the growth miracle of the “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the International Monetary Fund, in its April 2013 World Economic Outlook, was forecasting a three-speed global recovery led by emerging markets.

What happened? The most popular culprit is the Fed, which has begun to taper its highly experimental policy of “quantitative easing,” or purchases of long-term assets aimed at supporting growth beyond what could be achieved with zero nominal interest rates. But the Fed’s role is almost certainly overblown.