When will the bleeding stop in emerging markets?

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 6, 2018.
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HEDGE funds have not been this bearish for years.

In the last month, funds quickly sold down their positions in emerging markets (EMs) to levels last seen in August 2015, when China scared the world with a surprise devaluation, and early 2016, when Beijing terminated a silly experiment with circuit breakers in a futile attempt to rescue the stock market.

Emerging markets are in pain. Currencies alone are down 13% for the year as contagion starts to spread across continents, from Argentina to Indonesia. Bonds and stocks have tumbled.

When will the bleeding stop?
In a case of role reversal, the US is starting to look rather like an emerging market. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the American economy grew 5.4% in the second quarter, almost as fast as China (if you can trust Beijing’s numbers). While the S&P 500 Index is staging a record bull run, China, the proxy for EMs, was in solid bear territory even before the recent sell-off started.

Money is coming back onshore in the US, Fed rate hikes or not.

Adding to the EM challenges, this American expansion now requires much more dollar funding than before, as the Federal Reserve shrinks its balance sheet. Until financing conditions reach equilibrium between the US and EMs, expect the suffering to continue.

One naturally looks to China for relief. To blunt the blow of the trade war, Beijing recently switched its economic priorities and is ready to deploy infrastructure spending again. Cutting down the mountain of corporate debt is on the back burner. But Beijing must walk a very fine line. Doubling down on project spending will just pile on more debt and draw greater bear scrutiny of an already distressed financial system.

A good potential solution, much discussed in China, would be to echo US President Donald Trump’s big corporate tax cutt. Don’t set too much store by the bureaucracy, though — changes are unlikely to come until early 2019, if at all.

The other path to equilibrium is a slowdown in the US. After all, the world is getting smaller. Can America really grow at a developing nation pace when almost every other economy on the planet is flagging?

US tariffs on as much as US$200 billion (RM830 billion) of Chinese goods, which may go into effect as soon as tomorrow, will hurt American shoppers. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, 23% of the imports targeted by this round in the trade war are consumer goods such as computers, furniture and agricultural products. Any brake on consumer spending will rein in the economy.

Even so, it will be at least two months before negative sentiment shows up in US consumer confidence indices such as those from the University of Michigan and the Conference Board.

A virus needs to burn through the system before the patient can start recovering. Emerging market turbulence will be around for a while. — Bloomberg


Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron’s, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.