The Trouble with Emerging Markets

LAGOS – The financial turmoil that hit emerging-market economies last spring, following the US Federal Reserve’s “taper tantrum” over its quantitative-easing (QE) policy, has returned with a vengeance. This time, the trigger was a confluence of several events: a currency crisis in Argentina, where the authorities stopped intervening in the forex markets to prevent the loss of foreign reserves; weaker economic data from China; and persistent political uncertainty and unrest in Turkey, Ukraine, and Thailand.

This mini perfect storm in emerging markets was soon transmitted, via international investors’ risk aversion, to advanced economies’ stock markets. But the immediate trigger for these pressures should not be confused with their deeper causes: Many emerging markets are in real trouble.

The list includes India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa – dubbed the “Fragile Five,” because all have twin fiscal and current-account deficits, falling growth rates, above-target inflation, and political uncertainty from upcoming legislative and/or presidential elections this year. But five other significant countries – Argentina, Venezuela, Ukraine, Hungary, and Thailand – are also vulnerable. Political and/or electoral risk can be found in all of them, loose fiscal policy in many of them, and rising external imbalances and sovereign risk in some of them.

Then, there are the over-hyped BRICS countries, now falling back to reality. Three of them (Brazil, Russia, and South Africa) will grow more slowly than the United States this year, with real (inflation-adjusted) GDP rising at less than 2.5%, while the economies of the other two (China and India) are slowing sharply. Indeed, Brazil, India, and South Africa are members of the Fragile Five, and demographic decline in China and Russia will undermine both countries’ potential growth.