How US Fed is unintentionally squeezing developing economies

By: AP August 15,2018 - 10:36 PM

WASHINGTON — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is blaming the United States for Turkey’s financial crisis, ignoring homegrown problems like high debts, raging inflation and his own erratic policies.

Yet one of the threats facing Turkey and other emerging-market countries really is made-in-America: By ratcheting up U.S. interest rates, the Federal Reserve has — unintentionally — led investors to pull money out of emerging markets like Turkey, strengthened the dollar’s value and made it harder for foreign companies to repay their dollar-denominated debts.

The resulting flight of capital into safer and higher-yielding U.S. investments has sent many emerging-market currencies tumbling. The MSCI Emerging Markets Currency Index has sunk nearly 8 percent since early March.

Especially vulnerable are countries with weak economic fundamentals: Runaway inflation, bulging trade deficits, piles of foreign debt and paltry foreign-currency reserves available to intervene in the markets to help prop up their own currencies.

Turkey is Exhibit A: Inflation is running near 16 percent a year. The country buys much more than it sells abroad. Its borrowing binge has left Turkey highly vulnerable. Erdogan has rattled global investors by pressuring the country’s central bank not to raise interest rates — the conventional response to high inflation. High interest rates normally help strengthen a nation’s currency. But they also tend to slow economic growth, something Erdogan clearly wants to avoid.

Erdogan has named his son-in-law as finance minister, blamed foreigners for his country’s woes and escalated tensions with Turkey’s longtime ally the United States.

The Turkish lira’s value is down 45 percent against the dollar since early March. Yet among the currencies of emerging economies, it’s hardly alone: Argentina’s peso has lost 32 percent over the same period. That nation is grappling with a corruption scandal and double-digit inflation. Argentina’s central bank just jacked up its benchmark rate to 45 percent.

Likewise, South Africa’s rand has tumbled 17 percent. That country’s economy hasn’t achieved even a modest 2 percent annual growth in five years. And it runs a gaping deficit in its current account, the broadest measure of trade.

A crumbling currency inflicts many damaging consequences: Companies that borrowed in dollars — the global reserve currency — have to come up with steadily more money in their local currencies to repay U.S. dollar debts. Having to do so also raises risks for the banks that lent to them.

That’s the kind of squeeze that ignited the catastrophic 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. A currency disaster in Thailand infected the entire region, and East Asian economies absorbed devastating damage.

Fears of a replay have gripped financial markets as Turkey’s crisis has intensified. “Contagion” is the word analysts use to describe their nightmare of seeing Turkey’s problems spread across the developing world.

Still, most economists remain optimistic for now that another such crisis can be avoided. For one thing, Turkey’s economy is uniquely mismanaged.

“Turkey’s “economic circumstances are so different than many other emerging markets,” Furman said, referring to the country’s debts and Erdogan’s unconventional policies.

And emerging-market countries learned lessons from the debacle two decades ago. Many piled up reserves to fend off speculative assaults on their currencies. At the start of 1997, emerging-market countries’ reserves amounted to barely 6 percent of their economic output. Now, they equal nearly 18 percent, according to the Institute of International Finance, a banking trade group.

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TAGS: developing, economies, FED, How, squeezing, unintentionally, US

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