The world’s most important chart

It’s not always this fun on the way down.
It’s not always this fun on the way down.
Image: AP Photo/Andy Wong
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For our money, and pretty much everyone else’s, this is the chart that best explains the parlous state of global financial markets.

Money poured into the emerging markets over the last three decades. Now, like a nasty riptide, it’s pulling out.

Numbers released this week from Institute for International Finance show net capital outflows of roughly $735 billion in 2015, including the group’s best guess for so called “unrecorded outflows.”

That follows the more than $111 billion in outflows registered in 2014. The 2015 total also far exceeded an October estimate from the trade group for international bankers. The IIF’s October forecast called for an already impressive $540 billion in outflows, illustrating how quickly things deteriorated in the year’s final months.

(What are “unrecorded outflows”? Many emerging market countries such as China closely control the flow of the money into and out of their economies, leading those looking to get their cash out of one of those countries to turn to, say, unconventional methods that often aren’t registered in official accounts.)

Unsurprisingly, much of money running for the exits is in China, where increasingly slow growth radically reshaped investor expectations over the last year. The IIF estimates that some $676 billion of capital—both officially and through unrecorded channels—fled the People’s Republic last year.

This is at the heart of every question investors have right now. It explains why the yuan, ruble, and Brazilian real are so weak. It explains why the Chinese stock market is plunging. Likewise, it helps explain why the US dollar is strong and bond yields are diving there, even as the Federal Reserve tries to raise interest rates. (All this money is looking for safety and there’s no safer place than the US government.)

So it’s clear that this chart is where the global markets’ troubles started. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as clear where those troubles will end.