It was only a matter of time before pre-war apocalyptic poetry started being quoted in Financial Crisis reporting, but I am happy to see it is by Paul Krugman, and in a very interesting article that all of us interested in emerging markets need to heed.
Economic data rarely inspire poetic thoughts. But as I was contemplating the latest set of numbers, I realized that I had William Butler Yeats running through my head: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
The widening gyre, in this case, would be the feedback loops (so much for poetry) causing the financial crisis to spin ever further out of control. The hapless falconer would, I guess, be Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary.
And the gyre continues to widen in new and scary ways. Even as Mr. Paulson and his counterparts in other countries moved to rescue the banks, fresh disasters mounted on other fronts.
Some of these disasters were more or less anticipated. Economists have wondered for some time why hedge funds weren’t suffering more amid the financial carnage. They need wonder no longer: investors are pulling their money out of these funds, forcing fund managers to raise cash with fire sales of stocks and other assets.
The really shocking thing, however, is the way the crisis is spreading to emerging markets — countries like Russia, Korea and Brazil.
These countries were at the core of the last global financial crisis, in the late 1990s (which seemed like a big deal at the time, but was a day at the beach compared with what we’re going through now). They responded to that experience by building up huge war chests of dollars and euros, which were supposed to protect them in the event of any future emergency. And not long ago everyone was talking about “decoupling,” the supposed ability of emerging market economies to keep growing even if the United States fell into recession. “Decoupling is no myth,” The Economist assured its readers back in March. “Indeed, it may yet save the world economy.”
That was then. Now the emerging markets are in big trouble. In fact, says Stephen Jen, the chief currency economist at Morgan Stanley, the “hard landing” in emerging markets may become the “second epicenter” of the global crisis. (U.S. financial markets were the first.)
What happened? In the 1990s, emerging market governments were vulnerable because they had made a habit of borrowing abroad; when the inflow of dollars dried up, they were pushed to the brink. Since then they have been careful to borrow mainly in domestic markets, while building up lots of dollar reserves. But all their caution was undone by the private sector’s obliviousness to risk.
In Russia, for example, banks and corporations rushed to borrow abroad, because dollar interest rates were lower than ruble rates. So while the Russian government was accumulating an impressive hoard of foreign exchange, Russian corporations and banks were running up equally impressive foreign debts. Now their credit lines have been cut off, and they’re in desperate straits.
Needless to say, the existing troubles in the banking system, plus the new troubles at hedge funds and in emerging markets, are all mutually reinforcing. Bad news begets bad news, and the circle of pain just keeps getting wider.