by Joseph Joyce
Among the most notable economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the turnaround in capital flows to emerging markets. A sudden reversal in portfolio flows of over $100 billion to these countries in March has been offset by a surge of capital this fall. But many of these countries have accumulated debt burdens that will affect their ability to recover from the pandemic.
The IMF examined portfolio flows to these economies in last April’s issue of the Global Financial Stability Report (see also here). The report showed that prior to the pandemic, bond portfolio inflows had been larger than equity portfolio flows, with cumulative flows since 2005 of approximately $2.5 trillion for bonds vs. about $1 trillion for equity. The bonds included both bonds denominated in foreign currency as well as local currency debt. These flows had constituted significant amounts of finance in the emerging and frontier markets’ debt and equity markets.
The authors of the report analyzed the determinants of the different types of portfolio flows. They reported that changes in global conditions (or “push factors”) are largely responsible for debt inflows. Among these factors are the VIX index, a measure of global risk appetite, the U.S. Treasury bond yield, and the foreign exchange value of the dollar. Equity flows are also influenced by foreign conditions, but domestic economic growth (a “pull” factor) is a larger factor in raising the likelihood of capital inflows. This reflects the dependency of the returns on portfolio equity on profitable business operations.
These results explain a large part of the retreat from portfolio securities last March. When the extent of the pandemic became clear, the VIX measure rose while the dollar initially appreciated as investors sought a “safe harbor.” These developments contributed to the reversal of foreign holdings of debt securities. The rapid deterioration in the prospects for economic growth in the emerging markets influenced the turnaround of portfolio equity flows.
But capital inflows were flowing back to the emerging markets by the summer and continued to rise this fall. The Institute for International Finance (IIF) reported inflows of $76.5 billion in November alone, with $39.8 billion for emerging market equities and $37.7 billion for bonds and other debt. For the fourth quarter the IIF expected the strongest level of inflows since the first quarter of 2013.
The turnaround reflects several factors. First, the Federal Reserve’s strong response to stabilize financial markets has been successful, and market volatility has dropped. At the same time, the Fed’s lowering of the Federal Funds rate caused investors to look elsewhere for yields. Finally, the announcements of successful vaccines offers the prospect of an economic recovery in 2021.
However, there are concerns that the desire for a higher yield on riskier debt is fostering the issuance of bonds by borrowers who may not be able to fulfill their obligations. The ability of many of the governments and firms in the emerging market economies to meet their debt obligations is very much open to question. In December, S&P Global Ratings noted that “short-term risks still loom large” in the emerging markets. Moreover, the agency stated that “Debt overhang among governments and pressure on corporate earnings would constrain an economic recovery.” Five of the 16 key emerging market sovereign bonds that S&P rates carry negative outlooks: Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The dangers of government spending in emerging markets financed by debt have been noted by Michael Spence of Stanford and Danny Leipziger in “The Pandemic Public-Debt Dilemma.” While the current cost of debt financing is relatively cheap, Spence and Leipziger pointed out that “a country’s citizens are not well-served when their government becomes more indebted in order to spend imprudently.” They warn that “borrowing in hard currencies when exports are depressed and their own exchange rates are under duress simply makes future debt re-scheduling more likely…”
Similarly, Raghuram G. Rajan of the University of Chicago and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India also questions how much debt a government can issue in “How Much Debt Is Too Much?” While some governments can roll over existing debt, Rajan claims that ”… investors will buy that new debt only if they are confident that the government can repay all its debt from its prospective revenues.” He warns that “Many an emerging market has faced a debt “sudden stop” well before it reached full employment, triggered by evaporating market confidence in its ability to roll over debt.”
Jeremy Bulow of Stanford, Carmen M. Reinhart, currently chief economist of the World Bank Group, Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard and Christoph Trebesch of the Kiel Institute for the World economy foresee a need to plan measures to deal with debt problems in “The Debt Pandemic.” They warn of debt restructurings on a scale not seen since the debt crisis of the 1980s. They view the pandemic as “…a once-in-a-century shock that merits a generous response from official and private creditors toward emerging market and developing economies.” Among the measures they suggest is new legislation to support orderly restructurings.
The need for policy measures to deal with debt restructuring is also expressed by Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, Director of the IMF’s Strategy, Policy, and Review Department, and Rhoda Weeks-Brown, General Counsel and Director of the IMF’s Legal Department. They specifically call for strengthening provisions that minimize economic disruption when debtors are in distress. These could include lower debt payments or the automatic suspension of debt service. They also ask for increased debt transparency and agreement by creditor governments that are part of the Paris Club on a common approach to restructuring. The latter two steps are aimed in part at China, which has become the largest bilateral creditor for many developing countries. There is considerable uncertainty over the size and conditions of debt owed to China, and how China will respond to the inability of debtor governments to make payments on the debt.
The IMF itself has pledged to provide debt service relief to its poorest members, while working with the Group of 20 on its Debt Service Suspension Initiative. Under this program, the governments of the G20 have offered to suspend the payments of government-to-government debt for 73 developing economies. The G20 also called on private lenders to offer similar relief, but there has been little response.
The onset of a debt crisis among the emerging market countries has been foreseen. The widespread borrowing to deal with the pandemic, however, has exacerbated the debt overhang. The pandemic will continue to affect financial stability and economic performance even as medical measures are implemented to deal with the virus.