Emerging markets suffer in Greece’s shadow

Paris – Greece has been hogging headlines lately, but emerging markets have also had their share of tribulations with the Chinese stock market in convulsions and the Brazilian economy and currency hitting the skids.

China’s stock exchange has been in free fall since mid-June, undergoing a 30% correction after having posted a dizzying 150% rise the previous 12 months.

Failure to stop the slide has crushed small investors – who account for most of the market – and rattled confidence in Beijing’s government.

But it has transpired as China’s economic growth has slowed and manufacturing surveys show contraction, rippling across the globe as more and more companies depend on the world’s number two economy.

The powerful Federation of German Industries recently noted that “German companies were definitely prepared for a slowdown in Chinese growth but were nevertheless surprised by the extreme jolts on the stock market.”

Both Volkswagen and BMW have warned the slowdown in China – the world’s top auto market and key source of growth for Western automakers in recent years – could undermine sales this year.

The Chinese slowdown has also hammered commodity prices, weighing on the fortunes of countries which produce and export key raw materials.

That has complicated the situation for Brazil, which not so long ago had been hoping to ride the commodities boom to top rank economic status, but has instead found itself stuck in a seven-year stretch of zero or negative growth.

The Brazilian real has tumbled to a 12-year low against the dollar, forcing the country’s central bank to jack interest rates up to 14.25% to stabilise the currency and curb inflation. The government, meantime, has had to scale back its fiscal savings plans in order to prop up the economy.

Standard and Poor’s last month switched the outlook on Brazil’s ‘BBB-‘ rating to negative, which means the country’s investment-grade ranking is at risk.

Sub(e)merging currencies

Brazil is in good company in having its money pummelled, with fellow emerging markets like Mexico, South Africa, Colombia and Turkey also witnessing their currencies slide to multi-year lows.

Russia’s central bank has stopped its controversial purchases of foreign currencies to expand its reserves due to a renewed decline of the ruble in recent weeks.

The slump in the value of emerging market currencies is in large part due to falling prices of commodities – affecting oil and metals alike — which figure heavily in the exports of many emerging market nations.

Mining groups Anglo American and Lonmin announced plans to reduce their headcounts by a combined 12 000 employees owing to falling metals prices in a weak global economy.

For economist Christopher Dembik at Saxo Banque, most emerging market economies “have not undertaken the necessary structural reforms, (and) don’t have the diversified industry or real consumer market” to absorb external shocks.

He sees deeper problems than the withdrawal of investment funds from emerging markets by investors seeking higher returns in dollar-denominated ventures expected to materialise with a looming rise in US interest rates.

While industrialised nations benefited from long periods of prosperity to adjust and consolidate their economic models, Dembik does not believe today’s emerging markets will be so fortunate.

Volatility in financial markets has compressed business cycles, making it impossible for emerging markets to adopt a similar model.

However, Dembik considers China to be a special case, and he is “optimistic for the medium- to long-term” for the country, thanks to its large accumulated private savings and its interventionist government.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde also voiced confidence recently that China could weather the current turmoil battering its stock exchanges.

“We believe that the Chinese economy is resilient and strong enough to withstand that kind of significant variation in the markets,” she said in an online press conference last month.

China effect

Still, Natixis investment bank economist Patrick Artus believes “the significant reduction of China’s growth potential (from eight percent annually between 2000-2010 to three percent in the 2020s) will have considerable effects” beyond its national economy by reducing the global growth rate by one percentage point per year.

Meanwhile global trade growth has disappointed, as have efforts to reach global and regional free trade deals.

Ludovic Subran, an economist at insurer Euler Hermes, notes the emergence of an “anti-globalisation” trend with growing economic patriotism in the European Union and the United States.

“European and American consumers won’t save the world, economic and financial patriotism is on the rise,” he said.

While US President Barack Obama recently received critical authority to negotiate new free trade agreements, it is unclear whether accords with Asia-Pacific nations and the EU will be concluded amid considerable popular opposition.

Subran noted that the public in several emerging markets were becoming more concerned about inequality, plundering natural resources and economic reforms, and they are changing the game for governments and investors – including in China.

“You can’t import capital, have foreign-trained managers, without importing a little bit of democracy as well,” he said.