The consequences of the coming bull market in the US dollar, which I’ve been predicting for a number of years, go far beyond suppression of commodity prices (which in general is a good thing for consumers – but could at some point threaten the US shale-oil boom). The all-too-predictable effects of a rising dollar on emerging markets that have been propped up by hot inflows and the dollar carry trade will spread far beyond the emerging markets themselves. This is another key aspect of the not-so-coincidental consequences that we will be exploring in our series on what I feel is a sea change in the global economic environment.

I’ve been wrapped up constantly in conferences and symposia the last four days and knew I would want to concentrate on the people and topics I would be exposed to, so I asked my able associate Worth Wray to write this week’s letter on a topic he is very passionate about: the potential train wreck in emerging markets. I’ll have a few comments at the end, but let’s jump right into Worth’s essay.

A Scary Story for Emerging Markets

By Worth Wray

“The experience of the [1990s] attests that international investors have considerable resources at their command in the search for high returns. While they are willing to commit capital to any national market in large volume, they are also capable of withdrawing that capital quickly.”
– Carmen & Vincent Reinhart

“Capital flows can turn on a dime, and when they do, they can bring the entire financial infrastructure [of a recipient country] crashing down.”
– Barry Eichengreen

“The spreading financial crisis and devaluation in July 1997 confirmed that even economies with high rates of growth and consistent and open economic policies could be jolted by the sudden withdrawal of foreign investment. Capital inflows could … be too much of a good thing.”
– Miles Kahler

In the autumn of 2009, Kyle Bass told me a scary story that I did not understand until the first “taper tantrum” in May 2013.

He said that – in additon to a likely string of sovereign defaults in Europe and an outright currency collapse in Japan – the global debt drama would end with an epic US dollar rally, a dramatic reversal in capital flows, and an absolute bloodbath for emerging markets.

Extending that outlook, my friends Mark Hart and Raoul Pal warned that China – seen then by many as the world’s rising power and the most resilient economy in the wake of the global crisis – would face an outright economic collapse, an epic currency crisis, or both.

All that seemed almost counterintuitive five years ago when the United States appeared to be the biggest basket case among the major economies and emerging markets seemed far more resilient than their “submerging” advanced-economy peers. But Kyle Bass, Mark Hart, and Raoul Pal are not your typical “macro tourists” who pile into common-knowledge trades and react with the herd. They are exceptionally talented macroeconomic thinkers with an eye for developing trends and the second- and third-order consequences of major policy shifts. On top of their wildly successful bets against the US subprime debacle and the European sovereign debt crisis, it’s now clear that they saw an even bigger macro trend that the whole world (and most of the macro community) missed until very recently: policy divergence.

Their shared macro vision looks not only likely, not only probable, but IMMINENT today as the widening gap in economic activity among the United States, Europe, and Japan is beginning to force a dangerous divergence in monetary policy.

In a CNBC interview earlier this week from his Barefoot Economic Summit (“Fed Tapers to Zero Next Week”), Kyle Bass explained that this divergence is set to accelerate in the next couple of weeks, as the Fed will likely taper its QE3 purchases to zero. Two days later, Kyle notes, the odds are high that the Bank of Japan will make a Halloween Day announcement that it is expanding its own asset purchases. Such moves only increase the pressure on Mario Draghi and the ECB to pursue “overt QE” of their own.

Such a tectonic shift, if it continues, is capable of fueling a 1990s-style US dollar rally with very scary results for emerging markets and dangerous implications for our highly levered, highly integrated global financial system.

As Raoul Pal points out in his latest issue of The Global Macro Investor,The [US] dollar has now broken out of the massive inverse head-and-shoulders low created over the last ten years, and is about to test the trendline of the world’s biggest wedge pattern.”

One “Flight to Safety” Away from an Earth-Shaking Rally?
(US Dollar Index, 1967 – 2014)

For readers who are unfamiliar with techical analysis, breaking out from a wedge pattern often signals a complete reversal in the trend encompassed within the wedge. As you can see in the chart above, the US Dollar Index has been stuck in a falling wedge pattern for nearly 30 years, with all of its fluctuations contained between a sharply falling upward resistance line and a much flatter lower resistance line.

Any break-out beyond the upward resistance shown above is an incredibly bullish sign for the US dollar and an incredibly bearish sign for carry trades around the world that have been funded in US dollars. It’s a clear sign that we may be on the verge of the next wave of the global financial crisis, where financial repression finally backfires and forces all the QE-induced easy money sloshing around the world to come rushing back into safe havens.

Let me explain…

The EM Borrowing Bonanza

As John Mauldin described in his recent letter “Sea Change,” the state of the global economy has radically evolved in the wake of the Great Recession.

Against the backdrop of extremely accommodative central bank policy in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan and the ECB’s “whatever it takes” commitment to keep short-term interest rates low across the Eurozone, global debt-to-GDP has continued its upward explosion in the years since 2008… even as slowing growth and persistent disinflation (both logical side-effects of rising debt) detract from the ability of major economies to service those debts in the future.

Global Debt-to-GDP Is Exploding Once Again
(% of global GDP, excluding financials)

*Data based on OECD, IMF, and national accounts data.
Source: Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin, & Reinhart. “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?” 16th Geneva Report on the Global Economy, September 29, 2014.

As John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper explained in their last book, Code Red, monetary policies have fueled overinvestment and capital misallocation in developed-world financial assets…

Developed World Financial Assets Still Growing
(Composition of financial assets, developed markets, US$ billion)

Data from the McKinsey Global Institute
Source: Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin, & Reinhart. “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?” 16th Geneva Report on the Global Economy, September 29, 2014.

… but the real explosion in debt and financial assets has played out across the emerging markets, where the unwarranted flow of easy money has fueled a borrowing bonanza on top of a massive USD-funded carry trade.

Emerging-Market Financial Assets Have Nearly DOUBLED Since 2008
(Composition of financial assets, emerging markets, US$ billion)

Data from the McKinsey Global Institute
Source: Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin, & Reinhart. “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?” 16th Geneva Report on the Global Economy, September 29, 2014.

These QE-induced capital flows have kept EM sovereign borrowing costs low…

… and enabled years of elevated emerging-market sovereign debt issuance…

… even as many those markets displayed profound signs of structural weakness.

Raghuram Rajan at the Bank of India explains that this emerging-market borrowing binge is a logical consequence of “Code Red” monetary policies like ZIRP, QE, and aggressive forward guidance in the United States and other developed markets:

When monetary policy in large countries is extremely and unconventionally accommodative, capital flows into recipient countries tend to increase local leverage; this is not just due to the direct effect of cross-border banking flows but also the indirect effect, as the appreciating exchange rate and rising asset prices, especially of real estate, make it seem that borrowers have more equity than they really have.

But the problem goes beyond a logical response to easy money. With growth in global trade demand running well below the pre-2008 average, emerging markets face a dangerous dilemma: slow down along with their developed-world customers (which brings on the nasty prospect of social unrest and political regime change) or lever up in an attempt to make the tricky transition to domestically led growth (which may allow incumbent governments to stay in power).

Trouble is, as we are seeing in China today, it is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, in the current weak trade/volatile capital flows environment, to smoothly transition from an export-led growth model to a domestic consumption-driven growth model without a major slowdown along the way. And attempting to make the transition via debt-fueled, state-directed, investment-led growth is likely to result in massive debt bubbles, unmanageable piles of nonperforming loans, and the prospect of a very hard economic landing.

Brevan Howard’s Luigi Buttiglione, along with co-authors Philip Lane, Lucrezia Reichlin, and Vincent Reinhart, explained this dynamic in the latest Geneva Report on the World Economy:

Some nations that avoided the direct effects of the financial meltdown have recently built up excesses that raise the odds of a home-grown crisis…. A number of emerging economies reacted to the global crisis and the consequent slowdown in exports by switching from export-led growth to domestically led growth, engineered by a strong expansion in domestic credit…. The result was the strong increase in the ratio of total debt (ex financials) to GDP for emerging economies, by a staggering 36% since 2008. Higher leverage, although helping to shield these economies from the chilling wind blowing from advanced economies, is an increasing concern in terms of the future risk profile given the ongoing steep slowdown of nominal growth, which reduces the “debt capacity” of emerging economies exactly when they would need to expand it. [emphasis mine]

John and I have written about this topic several times in the last year (“Central Banker Throwdown” and “Every Central Bank for Itself”), and I believe that understanding the massive flows of capital from developed to emerging markets and the potentially disastrous dynamics behind an abrupt reversal in the emerging-market bubble boom may be the key to comprehending how the final act of the global debt drama will play out.

Carry Trade Junkies

After years of enjoying relatively easy capital inflows and high levels of debt growth against a backdrop of deteriorating fundamentals, the “Fragile Eight” (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey) find themselves in the “addicted to capital” phase of the balance of payments cycle (outlined in the chart on the next page from Bridgewater Associates), with high vulnerability to a reversal in flows.

According to the latest Geneva report, these economies (shown as EM1 in the graph below) have fallen into dangerous current account deficits compared to less fragile emerging markets (EM2)…

Source: Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin, & Reinhart. “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?” 16th Geneva Report on the Global Economy, September 29, 2014.

… and continue to exhibit a dangerous net-negative international investment position, making the Fragile Eight serious candidates for capital flight.

Source: Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin, & Reinhart. “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?” 16th Geneva Report on the Global Economy, September 29, 2014.

Broad-based, debt-fueled overinvestment may appear to kick economic growth into overdrive for a while; but eventually, disappointing returns and consequent selling lead to investment losses, defaults, and banking panics. And in cases where foreign capital seeking strong growth in already highly valued assets drives the investment boom, the miracle often ends with capital flight and currency collapse.

Economists call that dynamic – an inflow-induced boom followed by an outflow-induced currency crisis – a “balance of payments cycle,” and it tends to occur in three distinct phases.

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