EM Currency Weakness May Force Convergence On Global Monetary Policy, Sooner Rather Than Later

By Bryan Rich

May 16, 5:00 pm EST

We’ve talked about the stock market’s discomfort with the 3% mark in rates. People have been concerned about whether the U.S. economy can withstand higher rates–the impact on credit demand and servicing. That fear seems to be subsiding.

But often the risk to global market stability is found where few are looking. That risk, now, seems to be bubbling up in emerging market currencies. We have a major divergence in global monetary policies (i.e. the Fed has been normalizing interest rates while the rest of the world remains anchored in emergency level interest rates). That widening gap in rates, creates capital flight out of low rate environments and in to the U.S.

That puts upward pressure on the dollar and downward pressure on these foreign currencies. And the worst hit in these cases tend to be emerging markets, where foreign direct investment in these countries isn’t very loyal (i.e. it comes in without much commitment and leaves without much deliberation).

You can see in this chart of the Brazilian real, it has been ugly …

Oil has become the potential breaking point here. At $40-oil maybe these countries hang in there until the global economic recovery heats up to the point where they can begin raising rates without crushing growth (and with a closing rate gap, their currencies begin attracting capital again). But at $70-oil, their weak currencies make their dollar-denominated energy requirements very, very expensive. They’ve had nearly a double in oil over the past ten months, and a 15% drop in their currency since January (in the case of Brazil).

Something to watch, as a lynchpin in this EM currency drama, is the Hong Kong dollar. Hong Kong has maintained a trading band on its currency since 2005 that is now sitting on the top of the band, requiring a fight by the central bank to maintain it. If they find that spending their currency reserves on defending their trading band is a losing proposition, and they let the currency float, then we could have another shock event for global markets, as these EM currencies adjust and their foreign-currency-denominated debt becomes a default risk. This all may force the rest of the global economy to start following the Fed’s lead on interest rates earlier then they would like to (to begin closing that rate gap, and avoid a shock event).

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