The emerging economies cannot blame all their woes on the rest of the world

Fifteen years ago this month, Thailand at last allowed its currency, the baht, to fall against the dollar, abandoning a long, losing battle with market forces. “I haven’t slept for two months,” said the governor of the central bank on the day of the devaluation. “I think that tonight I’ll be able to sleep at last.” What followed was a five-year nightmare for emerging markets, as the financial crisis spread to Thailand’s neighbours, then to Russia and Brazil, before eventually claiming Argentina and Uruguay in July 2002.

After the tossing and turning of 1997-2002, the next decade went like a dream. In 2003 China resumed double-digit growth; India’s economy expanded by 8%, a feat it would surpass in four of the next six years; Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, appeased the IMF and the bond markets by cutting public debt and achieving the first of five annual current-account surpluses. Goldman Sachs released the first of its 2050 projections (“Dreaming with the BRICs”, its catchy acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China), suggesting that the big emerging economies would eventually inherit the Earth.

The crisis-hit countries emerged from devaluation, default and distress with low expectations, cheap and flexible currencies, scope to borrow and room to grow. Global capital markets welcomed them back, buying their equities and their bonds, even when denominated in their own currencies. The popular emerging-markets stockmarket index compiled by MSCI rose by over 350% from the end of 2002 to its peak in October 2007.

Rather than spend these capital inflows, emerging economies recycled them. They amassed foreign-exchange reserves as a guarantee against ever again succumbing to a currency crisis or the ministrations of the IMF. Some have even begun to help fund the fight against crises elsewhere. On July 10th Indonesia’s central bank confirmed it would buy $1 billion of the IMF’s notes, a poignant reversal of roles.

But after a dream decade, something is amiss. China is now struggling to grow as fast as 8% (its GDP expanded by 7.6% in the year to the second quarter). India, a country that once aspired to double-digit growth, can now only dream of ridding itself of double-digit inflation. None of the biggest emerging economies stands on the edge of a dramatic financial precipice, like their counterparts in the euro area, or a fiscal cliff, like America’s. But their economic prospects have nonetheless started to head downhill. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on July 21, 2012 (from the print edition).


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