RIPPLE EFFECTS

Emerging markets are on tenterhooks over the US Fed’s interest-rate decision

Around the world, and especially in emerging markets, the will-they-or-won’t-they debate over the Federal Reserve’s inclination to raise interest rates isn’t just an intellectual argument.

A rate hike by the US central bank would likely lead to a stronger dollar, and entice global investors to park more of their money in the United States instead of emerging markets. That could ultimately affect developing nations’ currencies, exports, and even employment levels.

Recent turmoil in the global markets, spurred—perhaps—by weakness in China, has led many to believe the Fed will not raise its benchmark interest rate next month. Most business economists polled in a recent survey believe the Fed will announce a rate hike this year, but only 37% now think that it will happen in September.

But it could still happen. Fed chair Janet Yellen, when talking interest-rate hikes, usually focuses on the domestic labor market rather than the fate of distant economies as an influencing factor. If a US jobs report on Sept. 4 shows strong employment growth, the Fed could well raise rates despite recent market volatility.

Economists and officials around the world have reason for concern.

Indonesia

In Indonesia, for instance, an economist recently warned that if the currency weakens to 16,000 against the US dollar, it would bankrupt one insurance company and threaten the collapse of three banks, based on stress-test simulations.

The rupiah is currently at just over 14,000, compared to around 13,500 on Aug. 10, the day before China devalued the yuan to boost its sliding economy and make its exports cheaper. That pulled down many currencies, especially in emerging economies, including Indonesia’s.

The question now is will Indonesia face a triple-whammy: a weaker China buying less of its commodities, a lower yuan making China’s exports harder to compete against, and a higher US interest rate making the dollar stronger (and the rupiah by comparison weaker).

Indonesia’s finance minister, Bambang Brodjonegoro, has predicted that the ongoing global economic fluctuations will continue until the US Fed makes a decision. “What’s really causing the turmoil is uncertainty,” he said in a Wall Street Journal interview (paywall). “It’s better for the US to make a decision, because what makes the financial markets volatile is the uncertainty.” Until then, he has said, “we can hopefully manage to maintain economic stability.”

China

In China, a central bank official said the global stock market rout should be blamed on a possible interest rate hike by the US Fed, not on the yuan devaluation. “China’s exchange rate reform had nothing to do with the global stock market volatility, it was mainly due to the upcoming US Federal Reserve monetary policy move,” Yao Yudong, head of the bank’s Research Institute of Finance and Banking, told Reuters. He went on:

So we hope the Federal Reserve could further delay its interest rate rise, giving emerging markets ample time to prepare. The Fed should not only consider the US economy, but should also consider the global economy, which is very fragile.

At least one Fed official has hinted that China’s slowdown could impact the outcomes of the Fed’s September meeting. “International developments and financial market developments do have relevance, because they can impinge and affect the economic outlook,” said William Dudley, a voting member of the Fed Open Market Committee—the one that makes key decisions about interest rates.

Turkey

Foreign investors are eyeing an exit from Turkey. Doubt about the political leadership is one reason, but another is a possible rate hike by the US Fed. Nevermind the benefit to Turkey from lower oil prices. If upcoming snap elections don’t produce different results than the June elections, foreign investors will hit the exits, several economists warned in a recent Al-Monitor report.

“At a time when Turkey’s growth model is based on borrowing financed by foreigners, both the Fed interest hike and political uncertainties could create a terrible effect,” said Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan, an economic professor at the University of Maryland.

Turkey’s currency, which had an average value of 1.90 to the dollar in 2013, is now at 2.92 and likely to decline further, surpassing the three-lira threshold soon. “Never mind three, it could even be four to the dollar,” Mert Yildiz, a senior economist at Roubini Global Economics, told Al-Monitor.

India

Like other emerging markets, India must build up reserves as a cushion against any potential fallout from the Fed’s tapering of stimulus. But in doing so, emerging markets effectively are decreasing their demand for goods from the US and elsewhere.

Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, suggested in an interview a year ago with Time magazine that these effects argue for the Fed coordinating more with other central banks around the world.

“There is room for greater dialogue on how these policies should be conducted, not just to be nice, but because in the medium run it is in [America’s] own self-interest,” he told Time. “If you are not careful about the volatility you are creating, the others have to respond and everybody is worse off.”

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