Emerging-Market Risk and Reward

NEW YORK – One definition of an emerging-market economy is that its political risks are higher, and its policy credibility lower, than in advanced economies. After the financial crisis, when emerging-market economies continued to grow robustly, that definition seemed obsolete; now, with the recent turbulence in emerging economies driven in part by weaker economic-policy credibility and growing political uncertainty, it seems as relevant as ever.

Consider the so-called Fragile Five: India, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa. All have in common not only economic and policy weaknesses (twin fiscal and current-account deficits, slowing growth and rising inflation, sluggish structural reforms), but also presidential or parliamentary elections this year. Many other emerging economies – Ukraine, Argentina, Venezuela, Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and Nigeria – also face significant political and/or social uncertainties and civil unrest.

And that list does not include the perilously unstable Middle East, where the Arab Spring in Libya and Egypt has become a winter of seething discontent; civil war rages in Syria and smolders in Yemen; and Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan form a contiguous arc of volatility. Nor does it include Asia’s geopolitical risks arising from the territorial disputes between China and many of its neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam.

According to the positive narrative about emerging markets, industrialization, urbanization, per capita income growth, and the rise of a middle-class consumer society were supposed to boost long-term economic and sociopolitical stability. But in many countries recently wracked by political unrest – Brazil, Chile, Turkey, India, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Ukraine, and Thailand – it is the urban middle classes that have been manning the barricades. Likewise, urban students and the middle classes spearheaded the Arab Spring, before losing authority to Islamist forces.