Currency volatility shakes investors
Lawmakers and central bankers in India, Indonesia, Turkey and several emerging-market economies are scrambling to contain the damage from falling currencies and to keep foreign investors from heading for the exits.
Money has poured out of those economies over the last few weeks, pushing down the prices of a wide array of assets, including stocks, bonds and currencies. On Tuesday (August 20), the Indian rupee fell to a record low against the dollar, while the Indonesian rupiah dropped to its lowest level against the dollar since 2009.
In an effort to slow the exodus of foreign money from Turkey, the country’s central bank raised a key interest rate on Tuesday. That came as the Reserve Bank of India announced that it would start buying Indian government bonds later this week to “address the risks to macroeconomic stability.”
“At this point in time I personally see the current government is completely in panic,” said Arvind Singhal, the chairman of Technopak Advisors, a consulting firm in Delhi. The strengthening of the American economy appears to be one of the catalysts for the problems in the emerging economies. A booming United States stock market has been a magnet for investors who might have otherwise invested in overseas stocks.
More important, the American economic recovery is causing the Federal Reserve to reconsider the need for the stimulus measures that have fueled the boom in places like India and Turkey.
Many of these nations fueled their economic growth with an unprecedented flow of money from foreign investors. Those investors, in turn, were encouraged by the low-interest-rate policies of the Fed, which made it easy to borrow money and send it abroad.
Last year, $1.2 trillion poured into emerging economies from around the world, nearly six times the amount going in just a decade ago, according to a report out Tuesday from HSBC.
As the Fed is taking the first steps toward letting rates rise in the United States, investors are pulling back their money. As they do, the local economies worsen, setting off a self-perpetuating cycle of market drops. Mutual funds that hold emerging market bonds, for example, have seen investors pull out money every single week since May, according to the data firm EPFR.
The sell-offs have recalled some of the emerging market crises of previous decades.
Many analysts say they believe that even the most troubled countries are insulated from that sort of economic collapse, but the optimism that was common a few years ago has largely dried up.
“I don’t see any near-term positive indicators out there for investors to start piling back into emerging markets,” said Kevin Daly, who invests in emerging markets debt for Aberdeen Asset Management in London.
The experiences in many emerging markets are the flip side of the economic situation in the United States, where the economic data has been improving.
In the United States, the stock markets closed Tuesday with little change. Both the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index and the Nasdaq composite index rose modestly, while the Dow Jones industrial average slipped slightly. The S.& P. 500 gained 6.29 points, or 0.4 percent, to close at 1,652.35. The Nasdaq picked up 24.50 points, or 0.7 percent, to close at 3,613.59. The Dow fell 7.75 points, to 15,002.99.
The most acute problems in the emerging markets began in May, when Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, gave the first signals that the Fed might begin trimming back the bond purchases it had been making to support the economy. Since then, a wide array of global assets have moved in tandem with forecasts of how soon the Fed might slow the bond purchases.
The changes at the Fed, though, have not hit evenly across the developing world. Initially, the hardest hit countries were those that were also exposed to an economic slowdown in China. Australia, which relies heavily on exports of commodities to China, fell sharply earlier in the summer.
The fear that Indonesia may not be able to continue attracting that money helped push the main stock index in Jakarta down 3.2 percent on Tuesday. Over the last month, the index has dropped 11.6 percent.
The most urgent fears have centered around India, where the economy is more than twice as large as Indonesia’s, and where the current account deficit is projected to be more than twice as big this year.
Investors have sold 24 percent of the money they had in Indian bonds since May, according to a Credit Suisse analysis of Indian government figures. All of that money leaving the country makes the national currency, the rupee, worth less.
For ordinary Indians, the falling value of the rupee has quickly made foreign goods more expensive, fanning inflation.
Indian lawmakers have taken a number of steps aimed at stemming the tide of money rushing out of the country. The government has tried to limit the amount of investments Indian companies can make overseas, and has also tried to curtail purchases of gold and silver from abroad. All of these measures, though, have appeared to make the problems worse.
“Initially the government just tried to talk their way through by saying everything is all fine, but it did not work,” Mr. Singhal, the consultant, said. “Then they get into active intervention in the market, but that hasn’t worked either”
Central bankers are in a somewhat difficult position because in order to keep more money in the country and tame inflation, interest rates need to rise. But higher interest rates make it harder for local companies to borrow, potentially limiting economic growth. That is leading to unusual measures like the bond-buying program that the Indian central bank announced Tuesday.
Some Indians are pinning their hopes on the arrival of Raghuram Rajan, a highly regarded University of Chicago economics professor who is set to take over the helm of the Reserve Bank of India in September.
But many economists say they believe that the problems are unlikely to significantly improve before the national elections bring in a new government next year.
“As a patriot, I’d definitely say they should be able to” stabilize the currency, said Ajay Chaturvedi, the founder of a HarVa, an Indian outsourcing firm. “But I don’t think as a finance guy that they’ll be able to.”
In the bond market in the United States on Tuesday (August 20, 2013), the price of the Treasury’s 10-year note rose 17/32, to 97 8/32. Its yield dropped to 2.82 percent, from 2.88 percent late Monday.
© The New York Times 2013