China’s comparative devaluation dabble: The emerging markets impact

China’s recent 2% renimbi reset against the dollar, while the first formal devaluation in two decades, was nonetheless negligible against emerging market currencies’ 20% drop this year turning  benchmark local debt and equity indices negative, in part due to waning Chinese commodities and funding appetite. The uniform depreciation has been the most severe since the Asian financial crisis, and units in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea and the Philippines have again suffered, and even traditional safe havens like the Singapore dollar have retreated while India’s rupee has softened after its post-Modi surge. Frontier markets like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, with more restricted trading, have also felt a combination of greenback strength and weaker growth and reform prospects and debt and political instability pressuring exchange rates. However the region has not been battered as badly as Latin America where China’s pre-devaluation footprint and competitive and fiscal policy missteps wreaked havoc.

China’s foreign reserves have fallen for consecutive quarters, but two dozen other developing economies have stopped accumulating as well due to current and capital account stagnation. In dollar terms the number was flat to negative for most countries in the second quarter, with portfolio investment outflows as tracked by EPFR international fund data. According to the Washington-based Institute for International Finance, all cross-border capital flow components — stocks, bonds, commercial loans and FDI — will be down this year for a $1 trillion total,  reversing improvement from the immediate post-2008 financial crisis through 2014’s initial Federal Reserve rate scare. Over $20 billion fled emerging market equities through July, while dollar and euro-denominated sovereign debt was a positive draw for that asset class offsetting local currency aversion. Reflecting meager trade growth, export credit volume was also off 25% compared with 2014, at $75 billion in the latest quarter, according to Reuters statistics. Asian banks have been big in the space, but standards have tightened in the latest surveys as they grapple with souring corporate and consumer exposure more generally.

Brazil’s real has been the biggest loser with a 30% plunge, and is on track to retest its 2002 low of 4/dollar. One-fifth of exports, especially iron ore, go to China and state oil monopoly Petrobras had to borrow from the Chinese Development Bank when it no longer could tap global bond markets after a downgrade and lingering scandal. President Rousseff’s approval rating is below 10% and recession will last into next year as 9.5% inflation exceeds the central bank target. Another interest rate hike to 14%  has not steadied the currency, and a dollar swap program was pared as a drain on reserves also reeling from a chronic current account deficit and decreased foreign direct investment. Moody’s just lowered the sovereign ratings a notch to near junk, which could lead to billions of dollars in forced selling from debt fund managers, including in Japan with its cultural ties where retail products for the country have long been popular.

China’s sovereign wealth fund reportedly holds Mexican paper, as the peso crashed through 16 to the dollar compelling the central bank to launch a 2-month $50 billion intervention facility. Beijing’s oil companies may be interested in Pemex’s first exploration block auctions, but for now bilateral petroleum deals concentrate on Colombia and Venezuela whose currencies have also plummeted. The latter has amassed $50 billion in Chinese infrastructure project for natural resource debt over the years it can no longer service, as default on sovereign and government petroleum company obligations is widely anticipated in bond and derivative spreads. The bolivar is in free fall at 600 to the dollar in the parallel market, one hundred times the controlled rate, as hyperinflation rages before end-year elections.

Outside the region South Africa and Turkey have also reached exchange rate bottoms amid Asian commodity, construction, and banking linkages exacerbating direction.  Negative commercial and monetary relations between major emerging economies are mutually-reinforcing, and with rumors that yuan internationalization was a factor in the 2% shift as it mirrors previous market openings, the prevailing pattern suggests repeated rather than one-off depreciation.

Gary N. Kleiman is an emerging markets specialist who runs Kleiman International in Washington, D.C.

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