Easing off on quantitative easing

Emerging markets’ currencies are being hit hard amid worries the US will taper its massive bond-buying programme.

Remember about three years ago, when the economic argument was quite simply austerity versus stimulus?

Oh, for the comparative simplicity of those days.

Even though the financial crisis was far more acute back then, economies simply had to make a decision.

Either cut back and hope to save some money, or actually throw money at the problem and try to kick-start things again.

Europe went down the austerity path – disastrously so, the people of Europe might say – while the United States opted to stimulate, though with mixed results.

This stimulus continues today. Every month, the United States Federal Reserve spends an astonishing $85bn buying up bonds – the process known as quantitative easing, or QE – in the hope of making some sort of dent in the country’s economic problems.

But why is that having such an impact on the world’s emerging economies?

Here’s the simplest explanation I can come up with:

QE has a positive effect: It adds liquidity and stimulus to the US market and brings down interest rates, giving businesses a helping hand.

QE also has a negative effect: Lower interest rates also mean lower returns on investments. The US suddenly becomes a less attractive place to invest, and so all that money heads overseas to emerging markets, where interest rates are still high and the returns are better.

So QE in the United States looks like a winner for those emerging markets where growth is still strong. But:

Quantitative easing can’t go on forever: That’s where the emerging markets’ problems start. The US Federal Reserve keeps talking about easing off on the bond-buying, but won’t give any clear guidance. And we know that markets anywhere hate uncertainty.

Eventually the status quo will reverse: QE will reach its conclusion. Investors will start returning to the United States because interest rates will go back up, leaving a hole in the coffers of those emerging markets.

And in fact that is already starting to happen, just with the current uncertainty created by the US Federal Reserve.

Midway through 2013, the South African rand has fallen 16 percent against the US dollar. The Indian rupee has fallen the same amount since May, making it the worst-performing currency in Asia.

In fact, back in June, 19 out of 24 emerging market currencies (as defined by financial house Bloomberg) fell against the US dollar. That was after comments in May by chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke that QE might be starting to taper off.

The upshot of all this is that no matter how much we talk about the strength of emerging markets, they’re not strong enough to operate in solidarity or even as a bloc. No nation or group is.

An alliance like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) might have some collective strength and talk a tough game, but they are still somewhat beholden to the Western world – in particular the United States.

And they know it. Gill Marcus, the governor of South Africa’s Reserve Bank, recently told a PwC function in Johannesburg: “Look at the impact on the rest of the world … it is absolutely volatile at the moment … we are all being hit by this.” She also said South Africa needed to take “very tough decisions” to be a “standout” investment destination in this environment.

Just more proof that this economic crisis still has life left in it, wherever you are in the world.