What Executives Really Need to Know About the “Emerging Markets Crisis”


As currencies and stock markets have tumbled in emerging markets, the business media has been dominated by cries of an “Emerging-Markets Crisis.” Corporate executives would be well served to turn off the television. Multinational companies do have their work cut out for them, and should take a second look at their 2014 plans — but this requires separating the signal from the noise to focus on their most important management challenges.

The media uses “emerging-markets crisis” as shorthand, but recent market turmoil was actually about relatively few countries.

For those of us who work on the ground in emerging markets, or who follow them closely, few of the headlines were all that startling. Yes, there are real reasons for MNCs to be concerned about political instability in Turkey and Ukraine, and economic policies in Argentina and China – all of which have occupied front pages recently. But these risks were known months ago.

Last fall my research team at Frontier Strategy Group designated Ukraine, Turkey, and Argentina asmost vulnerable to a liquidity crisis because of their high levels of short-term external debt. For such countries, even moderate changes in investor sentiment cause major currency movements. Unfortunately, the media tends to gloss over key differences in their market fundamentals, especially the ones that matter to companies.

If you’re playing catch-up, here’s what you really need to know about these hotspots of market volatility:

In Latin America, Argentina’s devaluation was the spark that lit recent currency turmoil. (Again, this was a known risk; we forecasted a post-election devaluation last May.) We believe the peso has further to fall but timing is difficult to predict, so if this region is vital to your business, contingency planning is the order of the day.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East the political crisis surrounding Prime Minister Erdogan made Turkey a target for currency traders. We expect political instability and currency depreciation to continue despite the central bank’s aggressive interest rate hike, contributing to softened demand in the first half of 2014. That said, 2014 disruptions are unlikely to diminish medium-term growth, presenting an opportunity to “buy low.”

Ukraine’s mass protests have topped headlines for months, since President Yanukovich discarded an association agreement with the EU in favor of direct Russian aid. As far back as August, worrying economic fundamentals led our analysts to warn of a 10-30% devaluation of the hryvnia. MNCs in Ukraine should expect to endure significant business disruption, including liquidity crunches and delayed public and private investment.

In China, slower growth is not a crisis, even though many financial analysts cite it as a reason for recent market churn. It is in fact evidence of a transition from an overextended investment-led economic model to a sustainable consumer-led model. The excessive bad debt in China’s shadow banking system, however, could lead to a real crisis.

In each of these cases, the most serious risk is not of contagion collapsing currencies across emerging markets, but rather repeated bouts of volatility driven by fund-manager portfolio reallocation and herd mentality. This can have deeply disruptive effects. Some markets are likely to experience extreme volatility on an ongoing basis (Argentina, Iran, Syria, and Belarus top our volatility index forecast). Factors we’re watching that could increase the likelihood of a currency crunch include short-term external debt, current-account balances, and portfolio capital outflows.

Business leaders at MNCs should take five critical actions now to mitigate the impact of likely currency volatility in 2014:

  1. Create contingency plans for repatriating profits in hard currency in the event of local-currency devaluation or if capital controls are imposed.
  2. Prepare to support local partners financially in the event of a liquidity crunch, a strategy that could earn enduring loyalty.
  3. Consider localizing production and sourcing to maintain price competitiveness.
  4. Review your geographic portfolio based on market fundamentals, and consider investing more aggressively in frontier markets that are relatively resilient to currency shocks such as Nigeria, Peru, and Kazakhstan.
  5. Define disruptive events that would call into question the underlying assumptions of your 2014 plan, and should therefore trigger a mid-year course correction in targets or resource allocation.

Above all, don’t let Wall Street or the headlines distract you from execution – or rewrite your business plans. Keep your eye on what matters to your company’s success, and the timeframe in which you are committed to deliver results. You don’t control the markets, but you can control your business.

By Joel Whitaker 

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