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Global Markets

Who will the crisis EMs adjust against?

06 February, 2014 | Posted By: Marcuard Cyprus

Marcuard's Market update by GaveKal Research

In last summer's emerging market sell-off, India was very much at the center of the storm: the rupee collapsed, bond yields soared and equity markets tanked. The Reserve Bank of India responded by raising rates while the government introduced harsh restrictions on gold imports. Promptly, the Indian current account deficit shrank. So much so that, in the current emerging market meltdown, India has been spared relative to most other current account deficit emerging markets, whether Turkey, Brazil, South Africa or Argentina. And on this note, the inability of the Turkish lira, South African rand, Brazilian real, etc. to hold on to gains after recent hawkish moves by their central banks is problematic. Markets won't be calm until there is clear evidence these countries’ current account deficits can improve. But how can these adjustments happen?
The problem is twofold. First, current accounts are a zero sum game, so future improvements in emerging market trade balances have to come at someone else's expense. Second, we have had, over the past year, only modest growth in global trade; so if EM balances are to improve markedly, somebody's will have to deteriorate.
When the 1994-95 “tequila crisis” struck, the US current account deficit widened to allow for Mexico to adjust. The same thing happened in 1997 with the Asian crisis, in 2001 when Argentina blew, and in 2003 when SARS crippled Asia. In 1998, oil prices took the brunt of the adjustment as Russia hit the skids. In 2009-10, it was China's turn to step up to the plate, with a stimulus-spurred import binge that meaningfully reduced its current account surplus.
Which brings us to today and the question of who will adjust their growth lower (through a deterioration in their trade balances) to make some room for Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia...? There are really five candidates:
China, again? That seems unlikely. Instead, China's policymakers continue to do all they can to deleverage, despite the cost of a slowing economic expansion. Moreover, mercantilism still rides high in the corridors of power in Beijing and so the willingness to move to a current account deficit is simply not there.
The US, again? As discussed in our recent book, the Federal Reserve's attitude since the global financial crisis has consistently been one of: "the US dollar is our currency and your problem." The Fed has been happy to print and devalue the US dollar, leaving other countries to deal with the consequences. The days of the US acting as the backstop in the system are now behind us.
Oil: In the past, collapsing oil prices have come to the rescue during emerging market crises. Of course, this accentuates problems for the EMs dependent on high energy prices for their growth, but is a boon for others (including India, China, Korea, Turkey). Unfortunately, for now, energy prices are not falling, with some more localized markets, like US natural gas, seeing a surge amid record cold snaps.
Japan: Japan, which has been such a non-player for twenty years, is once again finding its feet. However, it is doing so by exporting its deflation through a central bank orchestrated currency devaluation. How this “beggar-thy-neighbor policy” will help the struggling emerging markets is hard to see, except perhaps through a) capital flows from rich Japanese savers into by now higher yielding EM debt, or b) import substitution on the part of threatened emerging markets where the end consumers will perhaps replace high priced US dollar/euro denominated imports of manufactured goods for cheaper yen denominated ones?
Euroland: The currency zone’s slight trade surplus is largely due to Germany. However, Germany’s exports to Turkey, Russia, Brazil, etc., will likely suffer as domestic demand implodes in these countries. In this sense—the euroland will be the likeliest candidate on the other side of the EM current account adjustment. Unfortunately, odds are this will take place through falling European exports rather than rising European imports and/or rising EM exports to the eurozone. This is not a good harbinger for global growth.
In short, either oil collapses very soon, or the US dollar shoots up (with Janet Yellen about to take the helm, is that likely?) or we could soon be facing a contraction in global trade. And unfortunately, contractions in global trade are usually accompanied by global recessions. With this in mind maintaining positions in long-dated OECD government bonds as hedges against the unfolding of a global deflationary spiral (triggered by the weak yen, a slowing China, busting emerging markets and an uninspiring Europe...) makes ample sense.