IMF Warns of Possible Emerging-Markets Crisis

IMF Warns of Possible Emerging-Markets Crisis

Most countries expected to see growth, but ‘severely adverse’ scenario projects capital outflows not seen since the last decade

A new study by the International Monetary Fund projects emerging economies will muddle through recent market turbulence without a severe shock to their financial systems, but flags an outside chance of a crisis.

A few countries, such as Argentina, are expected to suffer contractions. But most will continue to experience growth, despite sometimes drastic declines in their currencies, the IMF said in its Financial Stability Report, released at its annual meetings in Indonesia.

In a “severely adverse” scenario, the IMF says capital could flood out of countries at a pace not seen since the 2008 global financial crisis.

The IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, warned in a speech last week that the pressure on emerging markets “could lead to market corrections, sharp exchange-rate movements and further weakening of capital flows.”

Emerging-market stability took on renewed focus this week when Pakistan became the latest country to seek a bailout from the IMF, hoping that the funds will give it enough to shore up its governments’ finances.

Earlier this year, Argentina sought a bailout after its currency plunged. Just a few months after receiving a $50 billion bailout, Argentina’s currency declined further and the nation got an even larger IMF bailout.

Turkey has also faced a massive currency drop.

While all three countries face vastly different challenges, their crises share a common element: the flip side of a strengthening dollar has been a weakening of their currencies. Capital has flooded out of their economies, and into the U.S., enticed in part by the Federal Reserve’s campaign of rising interest rates.

In recent years, emerging markets have attracted significant flows of investment, providing a boost to their economies as asset prices rise and businesses have more funds to hire and expand.

In the IMF’s severe scenario, those flows could reverse, and outflows could reach 0.6% of gross domestic product. That would be “on par with the outflows seen during the global financial crisis,” the IMF’s Financial Stability Report said.

“This tail-risk scenario would likely have a severe impact on economic performance in emerging markets, especially for sovereign and corporate borrowers that are dependent on external financing,” the IMF’s report said. “The estimated outflows under this scenario are much higher than, for example, in the fourth quarter of 2011, at the height of the European sovereign debt crisis.”

Though the scenario isn’t inevitable, vulnerabilities are high. The IMF’s measure of government-debt distress—in part a function of overall borrowing—is rising. Over 45% of low-income countries were at high risk of debt distress or already experiencing it, the IMF said, compared with only about 25% five years ago.

“This should serve as a wake-up call,” Ms. Lagarde said of the mounting debts and risks of capital outflows.