A rush for the exits is underway in some world markets: Currencies from Brazil to India have been dropping fast. Growth in countries that were once the shining stars of the world economy is no longer taken for granted. And political crises in Ukraine, Thailand and elsewhere have cast doubt on the readiness of politicians to act.
Another down day takes shape on Wall Street. Is it time to panic?
Not yet, argues International Monetary Fund financial counselor Jose Vinals, who has taken a sanguine view of the trouble that has hit large emerging markets at the same time the U.S. Federal Reserve has begun slowing its monetary stimulus and turning the page on an era of crisis management.
Certainly Fed tapering – and a world with new limits on liquidity – has played a role, as investors look at the possibility of stronger growth in the United States and the difficulties in the emerging world, and adjust accordingly.
But Vinals, in a view backed by top economists at other international organizations, said Fed policy is only one reason – and probably not the most important one -- for what’s happening right now in Brazil, Turkey, China and elsewhere. In fact, he gives high marks to the Fed. After a rocky start, he said, the central bank has begun tapering at a steady, “Goldilocks” pace and has made clear that its reduction in bond purchases does not signal higher interest rates ahead.
“Tapering,” in other words, “is not tightening.”
The Fed’s latest decisions will be announced Wednesday afternoon, when its policy committee concludes its first meeting of the year, which is also the final meeting for outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke.
What is more to blame for the rocky times in developing world currency and stock markets, Vinals said, is a “confluence of idiosyncratic factors” – a PhD’s way of saying that each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.
Take Turkey, for example, which hiked its main interest rate to 12 percent, from 7.75 percent, on Tuesday. The government probably needed to raise interest rates a while back, but it held off until inflation and a falling currency pushed the nation's central bank to the breaking point: Overnight the bank more than doubled some benchmark rates.
Brazil and Indonesia may be suffering the pains of China dialing back on its imports. China itself is trying to manage the results of a pig-out on investment that it now has to pay for; South Africa is dealing with mining strikes; and so on.
Despite all of that turmoil in the global economy, Vinals said, “if things are kept under control, we see a smooth normalization process…This is not a panic situation.”
At least not yet.
What could light the fuse? There may be hints from other recent crises.
In Europe, the steady downgrades of Greece in 2009 and 2010 touched off a broader run against sovereign bonds of euro-zone countries – and pushed the region into a recession. What would a downgrade of Brazil or India mean today?
In the United States, the troubles with Lehman Brothers and AIG revealed interconnections among global financial institutions that were unidentified and unappreciated until then. What would a collapse of China’s shadow banking system reveal about that mammoth nation’s connections around the world?
The Fed may be on a leisurely glide now. But what if estimates of the slack in the U.S. economy are grossly off target – and a surge of inflation triggers a Fed decision to raise U.S. interest rates?