Emerging Market Developments

One of our readers raised some good questions about emerging markets on another post, and I’ve been planning to give you a brief update about events outside the G7, especially since we’ve been warning about potential problems.

First, according to Satyajit Das on Planet Money, Iceland’s stock market has lost 80% of its value, its currency has lost 95% of its value, and people are beginning to wonder if the country will have enough foreign currency to import enough food. In Iceland, as many people have reported, the main issue is a rapid de-leveraging as a banking sector that grew rapidly using foreign borrowing collapses as credit dries up.

Second, Hungary and Ukraine are looking for aid packages – Hungary received 5 billion euros from the European Central Bank, Ukraine was looking for $14 billion from the IMF. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the IMF, said, “Many countries seem to be experiencing problems because of the repatriation of private capital by foreign investors or the reduction of credit lines from foreign banks.” In other words, in a global credit crisis, people don’t want to lend to emerging markets. (The FT also published more analysis of Eastern Europe by Stefan Wagstyl.)

Finally, Newsweek has a story about the crisis in Pakistan. While domestic political instability certainly predates the financial crisis, now the economy is also under pressure. One problem: “Whereas the previous government was able to finance its current account deficit through privatization proceeds, bonds issues, and foreign direct investment, these channels have dried up with Pakistan’s security woes and the global credit crisis.” As of today, Pakistan is potentially looking to the IMF for an aid package. I assume most American readers know why instability in Pakistan is a bad thing.

One common thread is that, when lenders stop lending, emerging markets are among the first to lose access to money. Iceland is perhaps the most extreme case, where entire economy had the characteristics of an overleveraged Wall Street bank. But other countries with significant foreign-currency debts are suffering from crises of confidence by external lenders who want to get their money out before everyone else does.

Besides potentially causing steep domestic recessions and severely reducing the purchasing power of local populations, emerging market problems spill back into wealthy countries in at least two ways. First, as banks (or countries) default on their debt, lenders in those wealthy countries have one more asset they have to write down on their balance sheets. Second, the fewer strong economics out there, the fewer people available to buy our exports. Finally, the other thing we should be concerned about is political instability. Economic crises – especially after periods of increasing prosperity (see Alexis de Tocqueville) – have a way of triggering political crises in which unsavory authoritarian governments, or at least anti-Western, anti-capitalist governments, come to power. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that this time.

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