As finance ministers and central bankers convened in Marrakesh for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings last month, they faced an extraordinary confluence of economic and geopolitical calamities: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, a wave of defaults among low- and lower-middle-income economies, a real-estate-driven slump in China, and a surge in long-term global interest rates — all against the backdrop of a slowing and fracturing world economy.
none of the large emerging markets — including Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa, and even Turkey — appears to be in debt distress, according to both the IMF and interest-rate spreads.
This outcome has left economists puzzled. When did these serial defaulters become bastions of economic resilience? Could this be merely the proverbial calm before the storm?
Several mitigating factors come to mind. First, although monetary policy is tight in the United States, fiscal policy is still extremely loose. The U.S. is poised to run a $1.7 trillion deficit in 2023, compared to roughly $1.4 trillion in 2022. And, excluding some accounting irregularities related to President Joe Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program, the 2023 federal deficit would be close to $2 trillion.
But emerging-market policymakers deserve credit as well. In particular, they wisely ignored calls for a new “Buenos Aires consensus” on macroeconomic policy and instead adopted the far more prudent policies advocated by the IMF over the past two decades, which amount to a thoughtful refinement of the Washington Consensus.
One notable innovation has been the accumulation of large foreign-exchange reserves to fend off liquidity crises in a dollar-dominated world. India’s forex reserves, for example, stand at $600 billion, Brazil’s hover around $300 billion, and South Africa has amassed $50 billion. Crucially, emerging-market firms and governments took advantage of the ultra-low interest rates that prevailed until 2021 to extend the maturity of their debts, giving them time to adapt to the new normal of elevated interest rates.
“Emerging markets never bought into the notion that debt is a free lunch.”
But the single biggest factor behind emerging markets’ resilience has been the increased focus on central-bank independence. Once an obscure academic notion, the concept has evolved into a global norm over the past two decades. This approach, which is often referred to as “inflation targeting,” has enabled emerging-market central banks to assert their autonomy, even though they frequently place greater weight on exchange rates than any inflation-targeting model would suggest.
Owing to their enhanced independence, many emerging-market central banks began to hike their policy interest rates long before their counterparts in advanced economies. This put them ahead of the curve for once, instead of lagging behind. Policymakers also introduced new regulations to reduce currency mismatches, such as requiring that banks match their dollar-denominated assets and liabilities to ensure that a sudden appreciation of the greenback would not jeopardize debt sustainability. Firms and banks must now meet much more stringent reporting requirements on their international borrowing positions, providing policymakers with a clearer understanding of potential risks.
Moreover, emerging markets never bought into the notion that debt is a free lunch, which has thoroughly permeated the U.S. economic-policy debate, including in academia. The idea that sustained deficit finance is costless due to secular stagnation is not a product of sober analysis, but rather an expression of wishful thinking.
There are exceptions to this trend. Argentina and Venezuela, for example, have rejected the IMF’s macroeconomic policy guidelines. While this earned them much praise from American and European progressives, the results have been predictably catastrophic. Argentina is a growth laggard grappling with runaway inflation, which exceeds 100%. Venezuela, following two decades of corrupt autocratic rule, has experienced the most profound peacetime output collapse in modern history. Evidently, the “Buenos Aires consensus” was dead on arrival.
To be sure, not every country that spurned macroeconomic conservatism has collapsed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has kept a lid on interest rates despite soaring inflation, firing every central-bank head who advocated rate hikes. Even with inflation approaching 100% and widespread predictions of an imminent financial crisis, Turkey’s growth has remained robust. While this shows that there is an exception to every rule, such anomalies are unlikely to last indefinitely.
Will emerging markets remain resilient if, as one suspects, the period of high global interest rates persists into the distant future, thanks to rising defense spending, the green transition, populism, high debt levels and deglobalization? Perhaps not, and there is huge uncertainty, but their performance so far has been nothing short of remarkable.
Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University and the recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics. He is the co-author (with Carmen M. Reinhart) of “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly“ (Princeton University Press, 2011) and the author of “The Curse of Cash“ (Princeton University Press, 2016).
This commentary was published with the permission of Project Syndicate — The Stunning Resilience of Emerging Markets