Contagion’s Contemporaneous Collision Course

Emerging market veterans after decades of crises, including the US Federal Reserve taper tantrum scare five years ago and the fallout since 2018 of Argentina and Turkey debt woes, are always on the lookout for so-called asset class or portfolio contagion, when common economic and financial sector squeezes and fund redemption needs spark large selloffs. Even though the literal form with the coronavirus pandemic originated in China and reached first to neighboring Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea several months ago, investors did not grasp the dual health and financial market threat despite ample warnings on both fronts. In Asia, swine disease that was monitored for potential human jump caused pork shortages raising food prices and inflation, and was on the radar for tourism, a large contributor to current account inflows. The region previously had selective outbreaks of respiratory system virus that came from the Middle East, and Chinese authorities were on notice of the Ebola spread in Congo with close mining connections there. Banks and non-banks reportedly pulled back on credit lines to affected businesses amid heightened regulation to reduce outstanding corporate and consumer debt burdens, often in the high double digit danger zone as a portion of gross domestic product.

Emerging stock markets were down through February on the benchmark MSCI core and frontier indices, but China and Asia outperformed Latin America and Europe in the former as the largest weighting. On the latter Africa, Middle East and Central Europe components had a few positive results as the overall gauge had fallen only 5%. Local and external government and corporate bond markets showed slight gains, as spreads over US Treasuries as a measure of risk continued to narrow. For domestic instruments the average yield was 5%, still representing a large pickup over advanced economy negative and low ones to drive allocation. A few analysts raised the specter of another SARS or AIDS emergency as in decades past, but even when these epidemics were raging they have not been pivotal in decision-making against traditional growth, policy, reform and technical categories.

As Covid-19 went global in March, with total demand and supply shutdowns and fiscal and monetary policy rescues, the immediate market carnage has paralleled the 2008 financial crisis. Currencies, equity and fixed income are off at least 20%, amid weekly fund outflow records at tens of billions of dollars, according to industry trackers. Several stock markets have curtailed operations or closed temporarily like in the Philippines, as they also consider or institute short-selling bans and tap state-owned and private institutional buyers for support. The IMF and World Bank, as the only two development agencies with worldwide presence and necessary firepower, initially combined to offer $65 billion in dedicated facilities to counter the disease and its economic fallout. The Fund put $50 billion aside and was soon swamped by dozens of requests, including from Iran which has not approached it for decades and is under strict US commercial sanctions. New Managing Director Bulgaria-born Kristina Georgieva, the first from an emerging market, has indicated a willingness to deploy a bigger share of its $1 trillion in reserves, roughly equivalent to the developing world damage observers tally with simultaneous oil and other commodity price collapse. The Bank has extended both concessional loans and technical expertise, with its IFC arm activating trade finance lines to maintain exports and value chains.

Growth forecasts were modest at around 4% amid global end-cycle near-recession worries before the health disaster, and double-digit output declines in the coming quarters will leave a barely positive showing at best by end-year across major markets. Fiscal and monetary easing is part of the standard playbook even if bigger deficits and additional currency depreciation result. Structural reforms like privatization and business climate overhaul will likely fade on the agenda as governments turn inward and enact more controls for pandemic protection. They may try to postpone bank and non-bank cleanup, but a cascade of stress and insolvency has been clear in China and India and elsewhere, such as Lebanon where it is coupled with sovereign default. The massive foreign investor exit in turn highlights the urgency of building and strengthening domestic private pension fund bases, which have eroded or never taken off in Asia, Europe and Latin America. Frontier Middle East-Africa should concentrate on establishing domestic debt and cross-border securities platforms as mid-decade priorities. However health, migration, and environmental threats with this universe in the frontline must be weighed equally in the future as contagion assumes a more complex definition.

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