Bracing for Economic Pain in Brazil and Beyond

By Kevin P. Gallagher*

Brazilian Real

Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s warning to U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2012 – that his monetary-easing policies were creating a harmful tsunami of financial flows to emerging markets – was spot-on.  U.S. growth and interest rates have been appreciating currencies, causing asset bubbles, and exporting financial instability to the developing world.  Brazil and other emerging-market countries may soon be facing capital flight and exchange rate depreciation that could lead to financial instability and weak growth for years to come.  From 2009 to 2013 countries like Brazil, South Korea, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia and Taiwan all had wide interest rate differentials with the U.S. and experienced massive surges of capital flows.  The differential between Brazil and the U.S. was more than 10 percentage points for a while.  According to the latest estimates by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), emerging markets now hold a staggering $2.6 trillion in international debt securities and $3.1 trillion in cross-border loans – the majority in dollars.

Now the tides are turning.  Many emerging market growth forecasts are continually being revised downward.  China’s economy is undergoing a structural transformation that necessitates slower growth and less reliance on primary commodities.  The prices of oil and other major commodities are stabilizing or declining.  As growth and interest rates pick up in the United States, the dollar gains strength – and emerging market currencies fall.  Brazil’s real hit a 10-year low last week, down to 2.87 to the dollar, amid continuing predictions of zero growth for the country this year.

The traditional tools for weathering the storm may not be available or enough for developing economies.  Floating exchange rates and the resulting depreciation can cause the debt burden on firms and fiscal budgets can bloat overnight, especially in a lower growth environment.  Increasing competitiveness would have helped boost exports, but an IMF study shows that Latin America failed to use one of the biggest commodity windfalls in its history to invest, hindering competitiveness to ride out the tsunami in short-term inflows.  Local bond markets help, but most debt is indeed in dollars, and most local debt is held by foreigners who are always the first to dump such debt.  Interest rate hikes can also be dangerous; they don’t reverse flight and can choke off what little growth there is to be had in a downturn.  Depleting foreign exchange reserves doesn’t always work; increasing debt could bring financial instability but threaten prospects for growth and employment.  Having no good options, emerging-market and developing countries may need to resort to regulating the outflow of capital alongside these other measures.  Such moves have traditionally been shunned by international institutions and capital markets, and new U.S. trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stripped out balance-of-payment exceptions that allow nations to regulate capital.  But new research in cutting edge of economics by the IMF and others now justifies such measures to prevent or mitigate a full-blown crisis.  If we have learned anything from the global financial crisis since 2008, it is that nations need as many tools at their disposal to prevent and mitigate financial instability.  Instability anywhere can lead to instability everywhere, so we need all tools and hands on deck.

February 19, 2015

* Kevin P. Gallagher is an associate professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Pardee School for Global Studies, where he co-directs the Global Economic Governance Initiative.  His new book is Ruling Capital: Emerging Markets and the Reregulation of Cross-Border Finance.

Argentine Debt and the U.S. Dollar

By Leslie Elliott Armijo

Images Money / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Multiple economic and political challenges have called into question the future status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency, but backlash from Argentina’s recent spat with the United States over defaulted bonds appears to be fueling interest in reforms that may have beneficial implications.  According to the IMF, some 61 percent of the world’s known foreign exchange reserves held by central banks around the world remain in low-yielding dollar-denominated assets, mainly U.S. Treasury bonds.  The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China, and heavyweights in the Global South, including Brazil, are calling for international trade agreements that would give emerging economies “policy space” – allowing national governments to impose capital controls, fund exports, subsidize local industry, and keep financial services national.  Private U.S. banks, however, claim that continued U.S. dominance of world capital markets – a crucial pillar of continued reserve currency status – requires ever more open trade in financial services.  The BRICS complain about the U.S. government’s “exorbitant privilege” as the reserve currency country, with some of the sharpest complaints coming from joint statements by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Chinese officials, though, worried about their own large dollar investments and ambivalent about the implications of renminbi internationalization, more than once have pulled the group toward a softer tone.

Argentina’s ongoing sovereign debt negotiations provide a different window onto the dollar’s reserve currency status.  Like most countries, Argentina has held a large chunk of its government’s savings in the U.S. and hired private U.S. financial institutions as its international bankers.  Today it is trying to extricate itself from U.S. markets and do its saving and financial intermediation elsewhere. Iran and Russia are doing the same, but Argentina has no foreign policy quarrel with the Obama Administration – and is not subject to U.S. financial sanctions over nuclear or military adventurism.  Buenos Aires is among those who chafe at U.S. power through the dollar, but it is primarily motivated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in July to let stand a lower court judgment in favor of investors holding bonds from Argentina’s $82 billion sovereign debt default in December 2001.  Although 92 percent of the original bondholders accepted the Argentine government’s restructured (lower value) bonds in 2005 and 2010, New York Federal District Court Judge Thomas P. Griesa ruled that Argentina’s failure to settle with the holdouts means that any U.S. financial institutions, or their international affiliates, that intermediate funds enabling Argentina to stay current on payments to the majority will themselves be in contempt of court.  This has sent Argentina into “technical default.” Argentina is suing the U.S. in the International Court of Justice (whose jurisdiction the U.S. refuses to recognize) and in the court of global public opinion – pushing, for example, a recent proposal for global financial reform before the U.N. General Assembly. It has also welcomed an $11 billion currency swap agreement with China, and Chinese state banks have since pledged $6.8 billion in new infrastructure loans.  Some observers speculate that the very first loan of the New Development Bank, newly organized by the BRICS countries, could go to Argentina.

The Argentine bond case harms the perceived fairness and credibility of U.S. financial markets and, by extension, the strength of the U.S. dollar because the recent legal judgments seem capricious to many.  Senior figures at the IMF have long supported the routine inclusion in all international sovereign bond issues of a so-called “collective action clause,” which would make any restructuring accepted by two-thirds of bondholders binding on all.  The European Union already has ruled that sovereign bonds issued within the EU, including many for troubled Eastern or Southern European governments, must contain such clauses.  Moreover, the International Capital Markets Association, representing more than 400 of the world’s largest private investment institutions, has just issued a position paper endorsing obligatory collective action clauses, placing it on the same side of this issue as non-governmental organizations advocating financial architecture reform such as the New Rules for Global Finance and the Jubilee Debt Campaign.  This would give taxpayers in emerging economies – the ultimate backstop of the creditworthiness of their governments – the same bankruptcy rights as firms and households.  It is not in the interest of Latin American and other emerging economies for U.S. currency and financial dominance to end anytime soon – a tripolar reserve currency system based on the dollar, euro, and reniminbi does not yet appear able to sustain the worldwide growth and prosperity of recent decades and may in fact entail significant risks – but fairer rules for sovereign financing would benefit everyone.

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is a Visiting Scholar at Portland State University and a Research Fellow at CLALS.  She has just published The Financial Statecraft of Emerging Powers: Shield and Sword in Asia and Latin America (London: Palgrave, 2014).

September 23, 2014