Emerging-Market Debt: Expect Volatility—and Opportunity

Summer is just beginning, but emerging-market (EM) bonds and currencies have been on a roller-coaster ride for months now. In markets, though, volatility breeds opportunity—and we still see plenty of that among EM issuers.

When 2018 began, we warned investors to be prepared for volatility and a faster-than-expected rise in US interest rates. But we also noted that strong global growth and improved economic fundamentals in much of the developing world have made emerging-market debt (EMD) less vulnerable to external shocks.

That view has been put to the test over the past six months as a sharp rise in US interest rates and the US dollar, and simmering trade tensions, provoked a broad sell-off in EMD assets—dollar-denominated bonds as well as local debt and currencies.

Such broad moves across EMD can obscure the differences between countries, companies and individual securities. The way we see it, the broad-based decline in prices creates an opportunity to add exposure to countries and companies with strong fundamentals that have been unfairly punished.

Less Vulnerable to Outflows

Not all EM borrowers are as vulnerable to a rising dollar as they once were. Many countries have reduced their current account deficits in recent years. That makes them less dependent on capricious portfolio inflows.

At the same time, foreign direct investment (FDI)—a more stable source of funding because it tends to be long term in nature—has increased. Over the past few years, we’ve seen EM basic balances, which combine current account position and FDI flows, improve in every region of the globe.

The most highly indebted borrowers are more exposed, of course. Yet how policymakers react to crises matters. Argentina and Turkey both suffered runs on their currencies in the second quarter. But Argentina’s central bank arrested the decline by swiftly hiking rates while the government lined up International Monetary Fund support. Turkey’s central bank waited weeks before acting, and has been subject to criticism from the country’s president, raising concerns about the independence of Turkey’s central bank.

Put another way, the quality of policymaking and government effectiveness clearly differs across EM countries. That’s why it’s so important for investors to be selective and deliberate about where they invest.