The selloff last week of the currencies of many emerging market countries while stock prices also declined can be seen as the result of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” How these will play out will become evident during the rest of the year. Either set of factors would be unsettling for the emerging market countries, but the combination of the two may lead to a long period of chaotic financial conditions.
The “known unknown” is the magnitude of the increase in U.S. interest rates following the scaling down of asset purchases by the Federal Reserve and the ensuing impact on capital flows to developing economies. A recent analysis at the World Bank of the response established a baseline assumption of an increase of 50 basis points in U.S. long-term interest rates by the end of 2015 and another 50 basis point rise in 2016. The European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England would also relax their quantitative easing policies. The result, according to their model, would be a slow rise in global interest rates and a gradual tightening in capital flows to developing countries of about 10%, or 0.6% of their GDP. The biggest declines would occur in portfolio flows to these countries.
However, the World Bank analysts also allowed for alternative scenarios. If there is a “fast normalization,” then U.S. long-term interest rates will rise by 100 basis points this year and capital inflows to the developing economies drop by up to 50% by the end of the year. In the “overshooting scenario,” long-term rates rise by 200 basis points, and capital inflows could decline by 80%. These developments would raise the probability of financial crises in the emerging markets, particularly in countries where there have been sizeable increases in domestic credit fueled in part by foreign debt
But the U.S. is not the only source of anxiety for policymakers in emerging market economies. A decline in Chinese manufacturing activity in January may be reversed next month, and by itself likely means little. The decline in Asian stock prices that followed the announcement of the fall, however, demonstrated the importance of China’s economy for the region, and why China’s economic performance is the “unknown unknown.” The financial system in China has become overextended, and the Bank of China has fluctuated between signaling that it would rein in the shadow banking system while also injecting credit when short-term interest rates rise. How long the authorities can continue their delicate balancing act is unclear.
The state of the financial system is only one of the aspects of the Chinese economy that raises concerns. Given the uncertainty about the impact of demographic and migration trends, the continuation of FDI flows, etc., any forecast is conditional on a host of factors. The IMF reported increased growth in China at the end of 2013, but warned that it will moderate this year to around 7.5%.
The conundrum is that we do not know what we should be concerned about in China, whereas we can imagine all too well what may happen to financial markets in emerging markets following higher interest rates in the advanced economies. The result is likely to be continued declines in exchange rates and financial asset prices, as the vulnerabilities of individual countries are revealed. As Warren Buffet warned, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
Update: See Menzie Chin’s views on these issues here.