Capital Flows and Financial Activity in Commodity Exporters

Capital Flows and Financial Activity in Commodity Exporters

photo: Nic Taylor

Emerging markets and developing economies have struggled in recent years to regain the growth rates of the last decade before the global financial crisis. The slowdown has been particularly evident in commodity-exporters that face declining prices. The World Bank’s most recent Global Economic Prospects, for example, projects growth for those countries of only 0.4% in 2016. Moreover, the fall in commodity prices is linked to capital flows to those countries and an increase in the fragility of their financial sectors.

In a recent paper in the Journal of International Money and Finance, Joseph P. Byrne of Heriot-Watt University and Norbert Fiess of the World Bank examined the determinants of capital inflows to 64 emerging market economies. Among the drivers of capital flows were real commodity prices: an increase in these prices increased flows to the emerging markets, particularly total equity and bank flows. Real commodity prices also contributed to an increase in the global volatility of capital flows.

Commodity price cycles, therefore, should be associated with capital flow cycles, and declines in both may lead to financial crises. Carmen Reinhart of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Vincent Reinhart of the American Enterprise Institute and Christoph Trebesch of the University of Munich documented such a correspondence of capital flows, commodity prices and sovereign defaults during the period 1815 to 2015 in a paper in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings (working paper here). They found evidence of an overlap between booms in capital flows and commodity prices, which resulted in a “double bonanza,” and a “double bust” when capital flows and prices declined. They also recorded the incidence of sovereign defaults, and found that four of six global peaks in defaults followed double busts in capital flows and commodity markets. The most recent boom was exceptionally prolonged, beginning in 1999 and lasting until 2011, and was followed by a “double bust.”

Commodity prices can also affect the fragility of domestic financial sectors. Tidiane Kinda, Montfort Mlachila and Rasmané Ouedraogo in an IMF working paper looked at the impact of commodity price shocks on the financial sectors in 71 emerging market and developing economies that are commodity exporters. Negative prices weakened the financial sector as manifested through higher non-performing loans and reduced bank profits, and an increased probability of a banking crisis. The transmission channels included an increase in the amount of debt denominated in foreign currency as well as lower economic growth and less government revenues.

The fragility of the financial sectors of the commodity exporters has been exacerbated by a growth in private credit. The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects has reported that credit to the nonfinancial sector in emerging markets and developing economies increased in the five years ending in 2015, and credit growth was particularly pronounced in commodity exporting countries. Much of this credit went to nonfinancial corporations, and the borrowing was concentrated in the energy sector. As a result, credit growth in the commodity exporting emerging market and developing economies has risen to levels of credit/GDP that in the past have been associated with credit booms that have often (but not always) been followed by bank crises.

Commodity price fluctuations, therefore, are accompanied by changes in capital flows and the status of financial sectors in commodity exporters. Booms in domestic credit can further threaten long-term financial stability. More flexible exchange rates may alleviate some of the strain of a downturn in commodity prices and capital inflows. But countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Russia face little relief from the drag on their economic performance as long as commodity prices remain depressed. The accommodative monetary policies of the advanced economies have bolstered asset prices in many emerging markets, but that situation can not be counted on to continue indefinitely.