Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Fragile Five – the Silver Lining

A deeper look into the problems of the Fragile Five shows that the fault does not lie with global finance.

There are times in life when it is tough to figure out who is the hero and who is the villain.  Such may be the case with the current turmoil engulfing emerging markets.  Adding ignominy to injury, economists have tarred Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and South Africa with the dubious epithet of “the Fragile Five” as an outflow of funds has sparked a multitude of economic imbalances.  Investors have been quick to yank their money out as higher investment returns are expected to follow the paring back of monetary stimulus.  First impressions might suggest that the blame lies with the fickle nature of global finance. 

Yet, as with all good detective novels, it is not always the obvious culprit who is in the wrong.  It is entirely logical that money should move out of badly run countries in the same way as shoddy companies are shunned by investors.  It is more often corrosive politics that are to blame for driving investors away.  With this in mind, a shake-up at the (invisible) hands of the financial markets may work out for the best.

The blame game

Politicians themselves have been quick to blame the Federal Reserve in the US.  The Federal Reserve was buying US$85 billion in bonds each month in 2013, which drove down the yields on US bonds and prompted investors to shift their money overseas in search of better returns.  Reductions in these monthly bond purchases have triggered a return of funds from overseas which has caught out many emerging economies.

If politicians in emerging markets were honest (admittedly, an odd concept), their fingers would be pointing closer to home.  Many emerging economies benefited from the cheap capital but came to rely on it too much.  Economic growth which had been sustained past the global financial crisis began to slow as governments put off reforms to keep their economies going.  Instead, governments tapped into funds from overseas to ramp up spending and cover growing shortfalls in demand.  This only masked the problems which have since been laid bare by the countries being stripped of their external financing (see No need to fear for the Fragile Five for more on this). 

No more excuses for politicians

All of the talk surrounding the Fragile Five tends to focus on their economies but the real issue is with their politics.  The rise of the middle classes in these countries has been a catalyst for more responsive government.  Minor issues have triggered large protests fuelled by frustrated voters.  A rise in transport costs incited upheaval in Brazil.  A sit-in protest at a park in Istanbul escalated into unrest throughout Turkey.  The rapid rise of an anti-corruption party threatens to derail the major parties in elections in India.  Workers strike in South Africa demanding higher wages.

The faltering economic growth has revealed the inadequacies of government.  Slower economic growth means that voters cannot be bought off with higher incomes.  Their dissatisfaction has now been coupled with that of investors who hold the upper hand in terms of where they stash their cash.  Being spurned by investors does involve some short-term pain.  However, this can be limited by countries building up foreign currency reserves.  Other measures such as controls over inflows and outflows of funds are increasingly gaining acceptance (for more, see beware of a flood of funds).

There are clear long-term benefits from keeping politicians in emerging markets honest by means of checks rooted in global finance.  Voters everywhere are disillusioned with their politicians (a sentiment shared by Your Neighbourhood Economist) and emerging countries are no exception.  But levels of wealth in poorer countries are considerably more dependent on the quality of their politicians.  Governments in developing countries also have a tendency to fiddle with the economy through state-owned firms or measures against free trade.  Argentina is probably the best example of this - the country is so badly run that it does not even attract enough foreign capital to merit inclusion in the Fragile Five.

Extra incentives for governments to adopt appropriate policies should thus be welcomed.  Trying to stick to the economic equivalent of a diet may not be easy but there are rewards at the end of it.  In conclusion, there is no point in blaming someone who keeps you on the straight and narrow, in fact, there is a lot to gain.

No comments:

Post a Comment