Monday, June 29, 2015

US Fed's interest rates hike could cause Emerging markets to suffer

The prospect that the US Federal Reserve will start exiting zero policy rates later this year has fueled growing fear of renewed volatility in emerging economies’ currency, bond, and stock markets. The concern is understandable: When the Fed signaled in 2013 that the end of its quantitative-easing (QE) policy was forthcoming, the resulting “taper tantrum” sent shock waves through many emerging countries’ financial markets and economies.

Indeed, rising interest rates in the United States and the ensuing likely rise in the value of the dollar could, it is feared, wreak havoc among emerging markets’ governments, financial institutions, corporations, and even households. Because all have borrowed trillions of dollars in the last few years, they will now face an increase in the real local-currency value of these debts, while rising US rates will push emerging markets’ domestic interest rates higher, thus increasing debt-service costs further.

But, although the prospect of the Fed raising interest rates is likely to create significant turbulence in emerging countries’ financial markets, the risk of outright crises and distress is more limited. For starters, whereas the 2013 taper tantrum caught markets by surprise, the Fed’s intention to hike rates this year, clearly stated over many months, will not. Moreover, the Fed is likely to start raising rates later and more slowly than in previous cycles, responding gradually to signs that US economic growth is robust enough to sustain higher borrowing costs. This stronger growth will benefit emerging markets that export goods and services to the US.

Another reason not to panic is that, compared to 2013, when policy rates were low in many fragile emerging economies, central banks already have tightened their monetary policy significantly. With policy rates at or close to double-digit levels in many of those economies, the authorities are not behind the curve the way they were in 2013. Loose fiscal and credit policies have been tightened as well, reducing large current-account and fiscal deficits. And, compared to 2013, when currencies, equities, commodity, and bond prices were too high, a correction has already occurred in most emerging markets, limiting the need for further major adjustment when the Fed moves.

Above all, most emerging markets are financially more sound today than they were a decade or two ago, when financial fragilities led to currency, banking, and sovereign-debt crises. Most now have flexible exchange rates, which leave them less vulnerable to a disruptive collapse of currency pegs, as well as ample reserves to shield them against a run on their currencies, government debt, and bank deposits. Most also have a relatively smaller share of dollar debt relative to local-currency debt than they did a decade ago, which will limit the increase in their debt burden when the currency depreciates. Their financial systems are typically more sound as well, with more capital and liquidity than when they experienced banking crises. And, with a few exceptions, most do not suffer from solvency problems; although private and public debts have been rising rapidly in recent years, they have done so from relatively low levels.

In fact, serious financial problems in several emerging economies – particularly oil and commodity producers exposed to the slowdown in China – are unrelated to what the Fed does. Brazil, which will experience recession and high inflation this year, complained when the Fed launched QE and then when it stopped QE. Its problems are mostly self-inflicted – the result of loose monetary, fiscal, and credit policies, all of which must now be tightened, during President Dilma Roussef’s first administration.

Russia’s troubles, too, do not reflect the impact of Fed policies. Its economy is suffering as a result of the fall in oil prices and international sanctions imposed following its invasion of Ukraine – a war that will now force Ukraine to restructure its foreign debt, which the war, severe recession, and currency depreciation have rendered unsustainable.

Likewise, Venezuela was running large fiscal deficits and tolerating high inflation even when oil prices were above $100 a barrel; at current prices, it may have to default on its public debt, unless China decides to bail out the country. Similarly, some of the economic and financial stresses faced by South Africa, Argentina, and Turkey are the result of poor policies and domestic political uncertainties, not Fed action.

In short, the Fed’s exit from zero policy rates will cause serious problems for those emerging market economies that have large internal and external borrowing needs, large stocks of dollar-denominated debt, and macroeconomic and policy fragilities. China’s economic slowdown, together with the end of the commodity super-cycle, will create additional headwinds for emerging economies, most of which have not implemented the structural reforms needed to boost their potential growth.

But, again, these problems are self-inflicted, and many emerging economies do have stronger macro and structural fundamentals, which will give them greater resilience when the Fed starts hiking rates. When it does, some will suffer more than others; but, with a few exceptions lacking systemic importance, widespread distress and crises need not occur.

VIA Project Syndicate

Monday, June 22, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Greece may repay IMF somehow

Radical decisions like capital controls, like deposit freezes, like IOUs that have a lot of collateral damage, not just financially but also economic, can be prevented.

I see a sense of something more constructive, of moving in the right direction. I do expect that pots of money are going to be found in June to make sure [that IMF money is repaid]

Monday, June 1, 2015

Money printing could lead to bubbles and crashes

A paradox has emerged in the financial markets of the advanced economies since the 2008 global financial crisis. Unconventional monetary policies have created a massive overhang of liquidity. But a series of recent shocks suggests that macro liquidity has become linked with severe market illiquidity.

Policy interest rates are near zero (and sometimes below it) in most advanced economies, and the monetary base (money created by central banks in the form of cash and liquid commercial-bank reserves) has soared – doubling, tripling, and, in the US, quadrupling relative to the pre-crisis period. This has kept short- and long-term interest rates low (and even negative in some cases, such as Europe and Japan), reduced the volatility of bond markets, and lifted many asset prices (including equities, real estate, and fixed-income private- and public-sector bonds).

And yet investors have reason to be concerned. Their fears started with the “flash crash” of May 2010, when, in a matter of 30 minutes, major US stock indices fell by almost 10%, before recovering rapidly. Then came the “taper tantrum” in the spring of 2013, when US long-term interest rates shot up by 100 basis points after then-Fed chairman Ben Bernanke hinted at an end to the Fed’s monthly purchases of long-term securities.

Likewise, in October 2014, US treasury yields plummeted by almost 40 basis points in minutes, which statisticians argue should occur only once in 3bn years. The latest episode came just last month, when, in the space of a few days, 10-year German bond yields went from five basis points to almost 80.

These events have fuelled fears that, even very deep and liquid markets – such as US stocks and government bonds in the US and Germany – may not be liquid enough. So what accounts for the combination of macro liquidity and market illiquidity?

For starters, in equity markets, high-frequency traders (HFTs), who use algorithmic computer programs to follow market trends, account for a larger share of transactions. This creates, no surprise, herding behaviour. Indeed, trading in the US nowadays is concentrated at the beginning and the last hour of the trading day, when HFTs are most active; for the rest of the day, markets are illiquid, with few transactions.

A second cause lies in the fact that fixed-income assets – such as government, corporate, and emerging-market bonds – are not traded in more liquid exchanges, as stocks are. Instead, they are traded mostly over the counter in illiquid markets.

Third, not only is fixed income more illiquid, but now most of these instruments – which have grown enormously in number, owing to the mushrooming issuance of private and public debts before and after the financial crisis – are held in open-ended funds that allow investors to exit overnight. Imagine a bank that invests in illiquid assets but allows depositors to redeem their cash overnight: if a run on these funds occurs, the need to sell the illiquid assets can push their price very low very fast, in what is effectively a fire sale.

Fourth, before the 2008 crisis, banks were market makers in fixed-income instruments. They held large inventories of these assets, thus providing liquidity and smoothing excess price volatility. But, with new regulations punishing such trading (via higher capital charges), banks and other financial institutions have reduced their market-making activity. So, in times of surprise that move bond prices and yields, the banks are not present to act as stabilisers.

In short, though central banks’ creation of macro liquidity may keep bond yields low and reduce volatility, it has also led to crowded trades (herding on market trends, exacerbated by HFTs) and more investment in illiquid bond funds, while tighter regulation means that market makers are missing in action.

As a result, when surprises occur – for example, the Fed signals an earlier-than-expected exit from zero interest rates, oil prices spike, or eurozone growth starts to pick up – the re-rating of stocks and especially bonds can be abrupt and dramatic: everyone caught in the same crowded trades needs to get out fast. Herding in the opposite direction occurs, but, because many investments are in illiquid funds and the traditional market makers who smoothed volatility are nowhere to be found, the sellers are forced into fire sales.

This combination of macro liquidity and market illiquidity is a timebomb. So far, it has led only to volatile flash crashes and sudden changes in bond yields and stock prices. But, over time, the longer central banks create liquidity to suppress short-run volatility, the more they will feed price bubbles in equity, bond, and other asset markets. As more investors pile into overvalued, increasingly illiquid assets – such as bonds – the risk of a long-term crash increases.

This is the paradoxical result of the policy response to the financial crisis. Macro liquidity is feeding booms and bubbles; but market illiquidity will eventually trigger a bust and collapse.