Please don’t fight it – the risk of EM policy mistakes

Emerging Markets are once again back in the headlines in the global financial media – from Turkey to Argentina market volatility has spiked from the beginning of the year.

The renewed Emerging Markets volatility has caused some commentators to claim that the crisis back. It migtht be, but also I think it is very important to differentiate between currency movements on its own and the underlying reasons for these movements and in this post I will argue that currency movements in itself is not necessarily a problem. In fact floating exchange rate regimes mean that the currency will move in response to shocks, which ideally should reduce macroeconomic volatility.

Imagine this would have been 1997

I think it is illustrative to think about what is going on in Emerging Markets right now by imagining that the dominant monetary and exchange rate regime had been pegged exchange rates as it was back in 1997 when the Asian crisis hit.

Lets take the case of Turkey and lets assume Turkey is operating a pegged exchange rate regime – for example against the US dollar. And lets at the same time note that Turkey presently has a current account deficit of around 7% of GDP. This current account deficit is nearly fully funded by portfolio inflows from abroad – for example foreign investors buying Turkish bonds and equities.

As long as investors are willing to buy these assets there is no problem. But then one day investors decide to close down their positions in Turkey – for example because of they expect the dollar to appreciate because of the Federal Reserve tightening monetary conditions or because investors simply become more risk averse for example because of concerns about Chinese growth. Lets assume this leads to a “sudden stop”. From day-to-day the funding of Turkey’s 7% current account deficit disappears.

Now Turkey has a serious funding problem. Turkey either needs to attract investors to fund the current account deficit or it needs to close the current account deficit immediately. The first option is unlikely to work in the short-term. So the current account deficit needs to be closed. That can happen either by a collapse in imports and/or through spike in exports.

To “force” this process the central bank will have to tighten monetary conditions dramatically. This happens “automatically” in a fixed exchange rate regime. As money leaves the country the lira comes under pressures. The central bank will then intervene in the market to curb to the currency from weakening thereby reducing the foreign currency reserve and in parallel the money base drops. The drying up of liquidity will also send money market rate spiking. This is a sharp tightening of monetary conditions. The result is a collapse in private consumption, investments, asset prices and increased deflationary pressures (inflation and wage growth drop). An internal devaluation will be underway. The result is normally a sharp increase in public and private debt ratios as nominal GDP collapses.

This process will effectively continue until the current account deficit is gone. This would cause a massive collapse in economic activity and as asset prices and growth expectations drop financial distress also increases dramatically, which could set-off a financial crisis.

This is the kind of scenario that played out during the Asian crisis in 1997, but it is also what happened in Turkey in 2001 and forced the Turkish government to eventually give up a failed pegged (crawling) peg regime.

Luckily we have floating exchange rates in most Emerging Markets

Compare that to what has been going on the Emerging Markets over the past 6-7 months. We have seen widespread sell-off in Emerging Markets and yes we have seen growth expectations being adjusted down (mostly because some EM central banks have been fighting the sell-off by tightening monetary policy). BUT we have not seen financial crisis and we have not seen a collapse in Emerging Markets property markets. We have not seen major negative spill-over to developed markets. Hence, the sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies cannot be called a macroeconomic or a financial crisis.

In fact the sell-off in EM currencies means that we have avoided exactly the 1997 scenario. That is not to say that everything is fine. It is not. Anybody who have been following the still ongoing corruption scandal in Turkey or the demonstrations in Ukraine and Thailand know these countries are struggling with some real fundamental political and economic troubles. In fact I fear that a number of Emerging Markets countries at the moment are seeing an erosion of their long-term growth potential due to regime uncertainty and general macroeconomic mismanagement. But we are not seeing an unnecessary economic, financial and political collapse induced by a foolish exchange rate regime. Luckily most Emerging Markets today have floating exchange rate regimes.

But some foolishness remain   

So yes, I believe we – and the populations in most Emerging Markets – are lucky that fixed exchange rate regimes mostly are a thing of the past in Emerging Markets today, but unfortunately it is not all Emerging Markets central bankers who have learned the lesson. Hence, many central bankers still suffer from a fear-of-floating.

Just take the Turkish central bank (TCMB). On Tuesday it will hold an emergency monetary policy meeting to discuss measures to curb the sell-off in the lira. Officially it about ensuring “price stability”, but the decision to have an emerging meeting only a week after a regular monetary policy meeting smells of desperation on part of the TCMB.

It is widely expected that the TCMB will hike its key policy rate – the market is already pricing a rate hike in the order of 200bp. If the TCMB delivers this then it will only have marginal impact on the lira – if the TCMB delivers more then it could prop up the lira at least for the short-run. But a larger than expected rate hike would also be constitute monetary policy tightening and given the present sentiment in the global Emerging Markets the TCMB likely will have to do something very aggressive to have a major impact on the lira. And what would the outcome be? Well, it is pretty easy – we would get a major contraction in Turkish growth to well-below potential growth in the Turkish economy.

Given the fact that inflation expectations (24 month ahead) is around 7% and hence the TCMB official 5% inflation target there might certainly be a need for a moderate tightening of monetary policy in Turkey, but should that happen as an abrupt tightening, which would send the Turkish economy into recession? I think that would be foolish. The TCMB should instead try to get over its fear-of-floating and focus on ensuring nominal stability. It is failing to do that right now by pursuing what mostly look like 1970s style stop-go policies.

Luckily the stop-go policies of TCMB is no longer the norm for Emerging Markets central banks who generally seem to understand that the level of the exchange rate is best left to the market to determine.

PS see also my preview on Tuesday’s Turkish monetary policy meeting here.

PPS This post is about value of floating exchange rates and even though I think floating exchange rate regimes now substantially reduce the risk of major Emerging Markets financial and economic crisis I am certainly not unworried about the state of Emerging Markets. I already noted my structural concerns in a number of Emerging Markets, but I am even more worried about the monetary induced slowdown in Chinese growth and I am somewhat worried that the PBoC might “mis-step” and cause a major financial and economic crisis in China with global ramifications particularly is it fails to keep the eye on the ball and instead gets preoccupied with fighting bubbles.

Update: My friend in Malaysia Hishamh tells the same story, but focusing on Malaysia.

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7 Comments

  1. Interestingly, a survey of fund managers at the beginning of the month was suggesting that emerging markets were close to capitulation and also that fund managers were much more bullish on EM’s growth perspectives than on their markets http://www.marketmoving.info/emerging-markets-ready-capitulate/
    So maybe the selloff is overdone in some countries?

    Reply
    • Thanks Antonia – yes, I think it is overdone in the sense that something that the lira fundamentally looks cheap, but it should certainly be cheap given the Chinese worries (and the local political risks). But my overall view is that we will not get a EM rebound from these cheap levels (both FX, FI and equity markets) will not happen before we see some real change in monetary stance from the PBoC.

      Reply
  2. Lars,

    I’m trying to understand the better the difference between the regimes in Turkey and Argentina. Turkey is not on a peg, so devaluation is the default unless the TCMB contracts. On the other hand, policy in Argentina would make deflation endogenous had they not changed the peg, right?

    Reply
  3. am

     /  January 30, 2014

    According to a report on the BBC today the South African Reserve Bank has also increased interest rates. In Zimbabwe, where the Rand is legal tender under the multi-currency system, for purchases in shops and everywhere really, the rand is now buying $1:ZAR11 as against $1:ZAR9 a few months ago which is making purchases expensive if you use rands not US dollars. For example, a 2 litre bottle of cooking oil costs $4 but under 1:9 it was ZAR36 and now under 1:11 it is ZAR44.
    According to another report on the BBC yesterday the US Federal Reserve has further reduced QE by a further $10billion per month from $75bilion to $65billion.
    So will countries if they try to fight this just have to keep changing interest rates everytime their currency moves due to the reduction in QE every time the US Federal Reserve reduces QE?
    A more general point is related to the basic theory proposed under NGDP and how it would be applied in countries under IMF programmes. How is it different from their programmes? What would happen to inflation, balance of payments, interest repayments, national currency values for import export bills, employment and so on? Also how would a country with inflation of 7 per cent get its inflation down to say 3 percent under NDGP?
    I am not an economist but clearly the economic recommendations in place for indebted and other EM is the IMF programme so any alternative monetary management system like NGDP should – even still at a theoretical stage – propose and show how it would work in these types of countries.

    Reply
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