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A global tour of the emerging-markets currency crunch

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The “Asian contagion” of 1997-98 sent the value of Indonesia’s rupiah tumbling.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The big markets news at the end of last week was the plunge of Argentina’s peso. The sell-off came as many other emerging-market currencies were already sliding:

What’s driving these trends is the intersection of the US Federal Reserve’s decision to slow its bond-buying stimulus—the so-called “taper,” which has been fueling a sell-off in emerging markets since early last summer—with a variety of more local problems, ranging from troubled economic institutions to political unrest and bad economic data in China. But a smart note from London’s Capital Economics, highlighted by the FT’s Izabella Kaminska, provides a helpful taxonomy of what different emerging economies are going through and, more importantly, whether one country’s problems could prove contagious to others, as happened during the currency crises of the 1990s. We’ve broken it down with the following maps.

In these three countries, trouble comes because of “serial political mismanagement.” Venezuela and Argentina are experiencing massive inflation and troubled relations with the global markets, and absent major changes, are the most likely sites for real trouble. Ukraine, where opposition street protesters have reached a stalemate with the government, is also experiencing real unrest.

These countries have relied on foreign investment and borrowing as investors searched for yield outside developed economies. Now, they are among the most vulnerable to the effects of the Fed taper, and could face years of lowered growth if interest rates start to rise.

These are countries with fragile banking sectors that have been exposed to troubles in the European Union in recent years. Capital Economics mentioned Hungary and Romania, and we would add Croatia to the list as well.

The BRICs aren’t at risk from external factors so much as their own economic institutions, which means they at least have more control of their own fates than some other countries. Whether by opening up sectors run by the state, investing in infrastructure, finding ways to stimulate domestic demand, fighting inflation and corruption or improving financial systems, these countries have the wherewithal to make their way through a troubled global environment—if their policymakers allow it.

At last, some success stories! South Korea has been signing trade deals and increasing exports to improve its economic situation. And Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto announced $7 billion in foreign investment commitments at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos—a sign that foreign investors, at least, have confidence in the reforms he has pushed through since becoming president a little over a year ago.

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