The IMF’s Pernicious Perfect Storm Tracking

The IMF’s spring global financial stability snapshot published around the post-virus virtual meetings described an emerging and frontier market “perfect storm,” with record capital outflows from leveraged and low-rated borrowers inviting a restructuring wave. Global central banks have rushed credit and liquidity relief as their own financial institutions, including asset managers and insurers, are squeezed, as countries in the firing line roll out fiscal and monetary packages and consider exchange rate interventions and restrictions. The government bond stock with yields less than 1% doubled the past year to 80% of the total, as riskier corporate segments valued at  almost $10 trillion sold off across the board. US high-yield default prospects reached 10% as the market closed, as standard commercial paper and dollar funding also evaporated. Equities at overstretched levels were not spared, as earnings per share forecasts went negative. The MSCI index dropped 20% as commodity-producer listings in particular were abandoned with price collapse. By the end of March EMBI spreads were 700 basis points over US Treasuries, on a combined $100 billion in foreign fund outflows for the quarter. China, where the coronavirus bred, was an exception to tighter financial conditions as officials ordered credit support and investors continued to buy securities to match index weightings.

The IMF’s April World Economic Outlook predicted 3% GDP contraction this year, with a probability it could be double that figure with further virus spread and extreme containment measures. With this scenario emerging financial market instability will deepen and “permanently scar” bank balance sheets, the analysis warns. These “cracks” will also appear in developed markets with asset losses and bad loans and pressure low liquidity and profitability. The EM sudden stop and oil price crash is a harder stress test than in 2008-09 with increased leverage and reduced policy space. Big Gulf debt issuers are geared to hydrocarbons; interest rates are already low; and structural budget deficits in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere are high. Foreign investors in turn are bigger owners of domestic stocks and bonds, and quasi-sovereign borrowers like Pemex will continue ratings downgrades. Shadow banks in China and India are in trouble, and trade finance has disappeared in African economies. Frontier market rollover needs are above $5 billion annually, with Zambia likely the first in regional defaults.

Currency intervention programs are widespread in major developing economies Mexico, Indonesia and Russia to tamp volatility, but longer-term adjustment is recommended after the viral outbreak subsides. Capital controls are acceptable if temporary and transparent, an endorsement reflecting a longtime shift from traditional orthodoxy as the Fund looks to offer its “integrated policy framework.” Sovereign debt managers in turn should prepare contingency plans to complement existing strategies that may involve “preemptive” commercial obligation rescheduling and restructuring. The G-20 has approved an official bilateral standstill still to be defined in detail as to non-Paris Club creditor participation. Multilateral cooperation is through the IMF’s $1 trillion in available nominal resources, but should also embrace home and host country financial regulation and medical trade, with essential supplies open to export and free from price controls to avoid more health complications, the review concludes.

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