Thursday, 14 May 2015

Emerging Markets – Caught in the Crossfire

US monetary policy has missed its mark and it is a handful of emerging markets that look set to pay the price

The big guns of monetary policy used to combat sluggish economic growth are about to be put away but the real damage may be just about to kick in.  The Federal Reserve adopted loose monetary policy to get the US economy moving again but it is elsewhere where the effects have been felt the most.  Having benefited more from the loose monetary policy than the intended target, some emerging markets look set to suffer as a policy reversal prompts US investors to stage a destructive retreat back home.

Danger zone

The proverbial printing presses at central banks are like the heavy artillery of monetary policy.  Central banks such as the Federal Reserve had been pumping out cash to buy bonds as part of quantitative easing.  Yet, the US economy had failed to fire up with companies unwilling to invest while spending remains weak.  Investors with cash in hand turned their sights overseas and targeted emerging markets where economic growth was still perky. 

The surplus US dollars helped to lower interest rates for borrowers in many countries which had not gotten caught up in the global financial crisis.  The reduced borrowing costs pushed up lending elsewhere despite not having the same effects in the US economy.  The muted effects of monetary policy in the domestic economy prompted the Federal Reserve to unleash even more firepower.  Money, like some things, is fine in moderation but the bombardment of US dollars inadvertently created its own minefield. 

Borrowers in emerging market were only given access to cheap cash by borrowing in US dollars for a short period of time.  This was fine as long as the prospects for the US economy were poor and US dollars were readily available.  But any significant improvement in the US economy would see investors shift their money back.  A stronger US economy would also push up the value of the US dollar and make it tougher for overseas borrowers to pay off any debts in US dollars. 

Collateral damage

Like solider stationed in a hostile region, investors were set up to bail when the opportunity arose.  Just the mere mention by the Federal Reserve in May 2013 that quantitative easing might be coming to an end was enough to trigger a rush by investors to get their money out.  Six months of market volatility followed even though quantitative easing did not actually end until October 2014.  With the Federal Reserve now mulling lifting interest rates up from their low levels, more upheaval seems likely.

This is because money often does more damage on the way out compared to the gains when it is initially welcomed.  Yet, the lure of cheap cash is too much to ignore.  Even the financial sectors in richer countries have shown themselves to be unable to cope when too much money is on offer.  Less developed banking systems in emerging markets are often even worse at putting any cash to good use.  This increases the likelihood that many borrowers will struggle when US dollars are harder to come by. 

As the aftermath of the global financial crisis has made painfully clear, a swift end to a lending boom is not something easy to get over.  In its attempts to deal with an US economy sagging under the weight of excess debt, the Federal Reserve has inflicted the same woes on others who are less able to deal with the consequences.  Like any form of warfare, it is the innocent victims that suffer the most.

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