Private Investor Associations’ Halting Healing

First quarter emerging debt and equity market results were as grim as the global coronavirus swept through Asia with other regions now in the crosshairs, with investors dumping positions to cover portfolio losses elsewhere and fearing intertwined health, economic and financial disaster. The main indices showed double digit declines as key currencies depreciated by the same magnitude against the dollar; agriculture and metals joined oil in commodity collapse; and remittances, tourism and foreign direct investment halted along with portfolio inflows. Fund data estimated combined securities outflows in the $100 billion range for the period, a record in absolute terms and swifter reversal than during the US Federal Reserve taper tantrum five years ago and the 2008-09 world financial crash.

With indefinite supply and demand virus-related shutdowns adding to previously-predicted domestic demand and export weakness, economies are expected to contract across the fifty countries and the main MSCI and JP Morgan indices to be negative this year. Stocks have given back most of their gains the past two years, as sovereign and corporate defaults cascade. Frontier market issuers like Zambia have already signaled restructuring, and high-yield company non-payment is on track to double for 5% of the total. Both retail and institutional investors will continue to exit through active and exchange-traded funds. According to fiduciary and risk management guidelines, they must leave when local bourses curb dealing hours or countries limit foreign exchange access, as in post-pandemic cases throughout Asia and Africa. Rumors of widespread capital controls, formerly endorsed by the International Monetary Fund as a temporary emergency measure, reinforce private commercial pullout, as official sources scramble to plug the gap and provide disease help.

Dozens of countries are in negotiations with the Fund for rapid and standard facilities, and it may ultimately marshal most of its $1 trillion in reserves, Managing Director Georgieva pledges. The World Bank Group has headlined a multi-year $150 billion commitment, including through its IFC arm for trade finance and capital market development. Other multilateral and regional lenders, including new actors like the Asian International Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), are also weighing in with billions of dollars in infrastructure and social support. Increased bilateral lines come from aid agencies and central banks, with the Federal Reserve introducing a repo arrangement for emerging market counterparts to borrow against US Treasury bill holdings. Banks and fund managers, through industry associations like EMTA for debt, the Institute for International Finance, and EMPEA for private equity, have not begun to channel and organize their own response as individual members reel from the immediate calamity and longer-term asset class stress.

The emerging and frontier market allocation rationale has always been high risk-reward, with the prospect of eventual convergence toward advanced economy living standards aided by government and corporate institutional reforms and industry competitive openings. In recent years returns and growth have been lackluster, with stagnant productivity gains and currency and trade battles heightening business and financial sector controls and protectionist sentiment. This year, three decades after launch of the asset class, longtime observers were originally hopeful that economic model revamping and further integration, technology and sustainability pushes would herald renewed embrace within updated globalization. The Covid pandemic and foreign investor retreat have delayed but not scuttled this vision. Lockdown strategies, fiscal and monetary policies and central bank quantitative easing have all converged and globalized. Developing economies must be more wary of increased budget deficits and exchange rate pressure with interest rate reduction to revive confidence, and recognize the need to deepen government bond markets to facilitate primary and secondary buying. Building on these pillars and previous commercial and structural intentions, health interventions and international fund manager organizations working with the IMF can restore participation and performance foundations, so that 2020 may end as it began on an optimistic note.

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