Global debt crisis ahead?
by Michael Roberts
Argentina is seeking International Monetary Fund aid after a
series of drastic interest rate rises failed to stop the slide in the
peso, pushing the country towards a financial crisis. Mauricio Macri,
Argentina’s right-wing, pro-big business president, announced the
approach to the IMF in a nationally televised address, saying
international assistance would enable the government to “avoid a crisis like the ones we have faced before in our history”. Asking the IMF for funds will mean more fiscal austerity and a hit to living standards. One foreign investor said “The most effective way would be to restrict wage hikes.”
In recent weeks, the right-wing government in Argentina has been
forced to hike its policy interest rate (which sets the floor for all
borrowing rates) dramatically from an already high 27% in April up to
40% last week. In January, the Argentine central bank had been
experimenting with reducing its interest rate but that came to an end
very quickly. Why? For three reasons.
First, foreign investors (who are key to the success of the austerity
and pro-business policies being adopted by the Macri government) were
concerned that inflation was not under control and began to withdraw
their capital. Even the government admitted that inflation was heading
towards 15% this year. The Argentine peso started to slip against the
Second, the dollar started to jump in the last month because of fears
of an international trade war, which always leads to investors rushing
to the ‘safe haven’ of the dollar and because the US Federal Reserve is
pressing on with raising its policy rate, thus making investing in other
countries’ currencies less attractive to speculators.
And third, there has been a sharp rise in the crude oil price, driven
by attempts to boost it from the OPEC cartel in the Middle East and
growing political tensions between the US and Iran. That means extra
costs of importing energy for many economies like Argentina, Turkey or
Those economies with large trade deficits, high inflation and
apparently little control over their government spending, and above all,
high levels of debt, are the most vulnerable to foreign investors
taking their money away. And that means Argentina, Turkey, South Africa
The Argentine peso has now fallen to a record low (fuelling even more
inflation) and its government bond prices have plummeted. Only last
year the Macri government issued a 100-year bond, confident that
enthusiasm for the ending of the left-reformist Kirchner administration
after 12 years would lead to a flood of foreign demand. The value of
the bond has now dropped to 83 cents to the dollar. With the government
now offering over 6% interest on that bond, compared to just under 3%
for the ‘safe’ US government bond, the government is hoping to stem the
outflow of capital. The central bank in Buenos Aires has blown $5bn of
foreign exchange reserves in a week and enacted three shock rate rises
in an attempt to halt the slide in the value of the peso.
But rising interest rates in the US threatens to put many emerging
economies, both their corporate and government sectors into new
difficulties. Many have borrowed dollars to cover their deficits, to
invest or to speculate, and now the cost of that debt is going to rise.
Turkey is now seriously in trouble. The Turkish lira sank, in spite of
the central bank intervention. Dollar-denominated government bond
yields jumped to new post-crisis highs and the stock market extended its
decline this year to 22 per cent — the worst performance of any bourse
in the world outside of Venezuela. If the central bank hikes rates, as
Argentina has done, it risks inflict severe damage on the local economy.
In previous posts,
I have raised the risk that the hiking of interest rates by the Fed
could provoke a debt crisis, particularly in the so-called emerging
economies, because debt levels have reached record high levels in those economies.
Also global debt is at a record high because governments and
corporations have borrowed heavily at cheap rates in order to stabilise
the banking system and boost stock markets and spending.
The Washington-based Institute for International Finance (IIF) argues
that, in addition to Argentina and Turkey, Ukraine and South Africa are
relatively vulnerable to a sharp shift in ‘risk appetite’ by foreign
investors – see graph below.
The IIF now reckons that global debt rose another $21trn in 2017 to
take the total to $237trn. Sure much of this extra debt has been
incurred by China, but that economy is much more able to manage that
debt. Most of it is in local currency not dollars and China has huge
foreign currency reserves in dollars ($3trn) that provide a buffer for
any debt collapses.
But other ‘emerging’ economies are not so well placed. Dollar and
euro debt now tops $8trn in these countries or 15% on average of all
debt. Argentina’s debt is over 60% owned by foreigners, while Turkey
has seen one of the biggest rises in FX debt since the end of the Great
Recession in 2009.
As interest rates rise on this debt, servicing it has become more
difficult. According to the IIF, ‘stressed’ firms now account for more
than 20% of corporate assets in Brazil, India and Turkey and those
companies where profits are greater than interest costs are shrinking
fast. “Even with low global rates, many non-financial corporates are running into trouble with debt service,” the IIF added. In Argentina, interest rates for smaller companies have moved above 15%. “Companies have burned through their working capital since then as they can’t get rational financing,” he said. “Big
corporates with access to international financing are in a better
position, but medium and small companies are in trouble.”, said one analyst.
The crunch will come when corporate profits in many economies begin
to fall as debt servicing costs rise. My latest estimate of global
corporate profits (based on a weighted average of profits in the US,
Germany, the UK, Japan and China, showed a fall in the last quarter of
2017 for the first since mid-2016. It remains to be seen how things
went in the first quarter of 2018.
Watch this space.
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