Author: Nischal Dhungel, NIPoRe
The International Monetary Fund’s recent World Economic Outlook report paints a bleak economic future. It has downgraded global growth predictions from 6.1 per cent in 2021 to 3.2 per cent in 2022. While the global economy is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, central banks in advanced economies are hiking interest rates — a policy change that will have significant global impact.
The depressing growth predictions are a consequence of tighter monetary policy and the increasing threat of social and economic risks, particularly for emerging and developing nations. Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed due to the Russia–Ukraine war and supply chain bottlenecks. The Russia–Ukraine conflict has made it challenging to balance fighting inflation, supporting the global economic recovery, helping the vulnerable and restoring fiscal buffers.
The US Federal Reserve (Fed) stepped up its fight against inflation after consumer prices increased 8.6 per cent in the United States. On 15 June 2022, the Fed voted to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 0.75–1 per cent. It plans to implement additional hikes for the rest of 2022. But efforts to reduce inflation by increasing interest rates in the United States could harm the rest of the world.
As interest rates rise in the United States, those who invest in emerging markets to receive higher rates of return may invest in the more appealing US market. This will result in massive capital inflows to the United States and increased outflows from the developing world. Without proportionally tighter domestic monetary policies, the ensuing rise in borrowing costs will deplete foreign reserves, appreciate the US dollar and result in balance sheet losses for nations with US dollar-denominated net obligations.
Rising US interest rates have the greatest impact on economies with higher macroeconomic vulnerabilities. Between 2019 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp rise in public debt in developing economies — on average increasing from 54 per cent to 65 per cent of GDP.
Thirty-eight emerging economies are now in danger of a debt crisis or are currently experiencing one. At least 25 developing economies spend over 20 per cent of government income on servicing foreign public debt. This is why interest rate hikes in advanced economies could tighten external financial conditions for emerging markets and developing countries.
There is a worrying comparability between today’s economy and the economy of the 1970s and early 1980s which was rife with high inflation, slow growth and rising borrowing costs. In the 1970s, oil exporters benefitting from increasing energy prices used their surpluses to increase funding for debt markets in emerging market economies. Fed rate hikes in the early 1980s reduced inflation in the United States but drove up global interest rates, causing many emerging economies to default on their debts.
The debt crisis that followed the Volcker shock was distressing for developing nations. The Fed interest rate hike had a devastating effect on Latin America. The region experienced plummeting GDP and ballooning unemployment and poverty. The subsequent decade was lost to gradual and uneven economic recovery. The consequences of the Latin American debt crisis were similarly experienced in Africa’s heavily indebted nations. The Fed did not pay enough attention to how its choices would affect the rest of the world.
Though today’s economic situation has similar origins to that of the 1970s and 1980s, there are some significant distinctions. Today, oil producers acutely feel the world’s reducing dependence on oil. Real oil price increases are smaller than they have been historically. Policy tightening in response to the economic downturn has also begun sooner than it did in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in certain emerging markets and developing nations. Unlike the 1970s and the 1980s, there has not been as much time for recycled petrodollars to fuel imbalances in developing and emerging market economies.
Despite these encouraging developments, new risks have emerged. Due to increased exposure to sizeable bilateral creditors and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, public debt has risen and stunted the growth potential of many countries.
While international financial institutions are doing their part to provide debt relief and stop punitive measures like surcharges — additional fees imposed on countries that fail to make debt repayments — there needs to be swift and systematic action on debt resolution. This must involve collaboration with private creditors and large state creditors like China. Major food and fuel businesses must be prevented from profiteering and speculating.
Special drawing rights (SDRs) — a foreign reserve asset issued by the IMF that can be used for foreign exchange stability in addition to gold or US dollars — must be redistributed to those countries that urgently require them. A new release of special drawing rights with an equivalent value of US$650 billion is necessary for immediate relief. The UN Conference on Trade and Development has advocated an alternative way to facilitate fair and orderly debt crisis resolutions. It would involve a multilateral legal framework for restructuring sovereign debt using both public and private creditors.
Interest rate increases in advanced countries will always impact low-income countries. But that does not negate the need to pursue structural reform in low-income countries. Structural reform is the only way to find short and long-term solutions to debt management.
Nischal Dhungel is a fellow at the Nepal Institute for Policy Research.
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