Who’s to blame for the emerging-market crisis?

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2014
Paul Krugman and Dani Rodrik are out with dueling op-eds on the subject of the latest bout of financial-market craziness in places like Argentina and Turkey.

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Paul Krugman and Dani Rodrik are out with dueling op-eds (the latter written with Arvind Subramanian) on the subject of the latest bout of financial-market craziness in places like Argentina and Turkey. Both men have been following emerging-market crises for decades; both indeed, are world-class experts on such episodes. What’s more, both economists have a broadly left-liberal worldview: there’s no deep ideological or philosophical rift here. And yet the two seem diametrically opposed.

Here’s Krugman:

Turkey isn’t really the problem; neither are South Africa, Russia, Hungary, India, and whoever else is getting hit right now. The real problem is that the world’s wealthy economies — the United States, the euro area, and smaller players, too — have failed to deal with their own underlying weaknesses.

And here’s Rodrik:

Emerging markets aren’t hapless and undeserved victims; for the most part they are simply reaping what they sowed…

The fact is that the emerging economies’ troubles are domestically generated problems and not the fault of foreigners. The complaint of emerging-market countries seems a classic case of blaming outsiders for choices and actions that have been predominantly domestic.

Take a step back, and you’ll find a certain amount of agreement: both Krugman and Rodrik would accept that a large part of the story here is that the Fed’s QE program caused enormous amounts of cash to flow into the world’s emerging markets, thereby helping to inflate the markets which are currently crashing. What goes down must have gone up — and it’s easy to see where the inflows came from.

That said, neither Krugman nor Rodrik is blaming the Fed for causing the emerging-market bubble in the first place. The Fed had a (domestic) job to do, and did it; QE was part of that job, and the Fed simply can’t worry too much about potential unintended consequences on the other side of the planet when it’s setting US monetary policy.

The stories being told by both Krugman and Rodrik are consistent, then, with the “taper tantrum” theory of the current emerging-market crisis. Basically, emerging-market economies have become reliant on the constant flow of very cheap dollars being printed by the Fed; now that QE is coming to an end, they’re finding themselves in a real pickle.

Here, however, the two narratives diverge. Krugman, if I’m reading him right, is saying that if only US economic policy had worked better, we would have a much more vibrant economy, throwing off enormous amounts of cash which would more than make up for the taper. Employed Americans, along with fast-growing US companies, would naturally look to invest their money abroad, and the flows to emerging markets would remain healthy, thereby avoiding a crisis. Instead, we have too few employed Americans, we have overly cautious US companies, and the markets have come to the collective (and self-fulfilling) decision that the end of QE will mean the end of substantially all capital flows to emerging markets. The result is a “sudden stop” — and all sudden stops are extremely painful.

Rodrik, on the other hand, says that the current crisis is the emerging markets’ own fault, for opening themselves up to fickle and volatile capital flows in the first place. Worse, whenever these economies run into difficulty, they tend to respond by becoming even more open to international capital flows. This is a story which is bound to end in tears, no matter what the Fed does.

The two narratives aren’t entirely contradictory, but ultimately Rodrik’s is more important, and more correct. Sure, a healthier US economy might well have kept the money flowing to emerging markets for a bit longer. But as Krugman himself demonstrates, sudden stops in emerging markets can happen in any number of US economic environments, and for any number of reasons. The trick to preventing sudden stops isn’t to keep the money flowing: the trick to preventing sudden stops is to not make yourself susceptible to them in the first place. Here’s Rodrik:

Over the last five years in India, every episode of rupee pressure has provoked a relaxation of regulations on foreign inflows, which has rendered the economy vulnerable to the next rupee shock, which, in turn, provokes the next liberalization and so on. In Turkey, policy makers spun a tale of invulnerability to shocks and contagion even as the economy’s growth was driven by a flood of short-term capital inflows. China provides an instructive contrast. China has chosen to insulate itself from foreign capital and has correspondingly been less affected by the vagaries of Fed actions and the fickleness of foreign finance. Chinese policies aren’t blameless, but their economic insulation has afforded them the luxury of being the recipient of complaints rather than the distributor.

With the taper ending, we’re beginning to see markets start to become rather more discerning than they have been in recent years. No longer will money simply flow to anything and everything, be it gold or Turkish lira; instead, we’re beginning to see the return of volatility. Sometimes, as in the case of this week’s Facebook earnings report, that volatility is welcome. And sometimes, as we’re seeing in emerging markets, it isn’t — especially when the volatility looks as though it’s more a self-fulfilling caprice than a rational reaction to economic fundamentals.

Still, as Rodrik knows better than anybody, Turkey has real political and economic problems of its own: you don’t need to look to the Fed to find reasons for the current sell-off. Sometimes, small open economies are the blameless victims of forces outside their own control. This is not one of those times. They knew what they were doing, when they allowed the Fed’s liquidity to flood their economies. One day, the tide was going to start going out. That day has now arrived.

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