Emerging markets have always been an enigma for economists. They are poor, but unlike the ‘poor’ countries, they have a lot of economic dynamism. They have functioning governments, and they have economic institutions such as a central bank, or a stock exchange, like the developed world, but these are often erratic in their effectiveness. But most of all, these countries, should they be in East Asia, Central Europe, Latin America, or southern Africa, always tended to produce macroeconomic numbers that would be impossible for mature economies. Our models and theories that work for the developed world (or at least used to) were unable to explain a host of phenomenon in the emerging markets. Hence the regular use of the adjective ‘miracle’.
For instance, in a developed country, it is impossible to have the kind of simultaneous fall of budget deficit, current account deficit, inflation, and unemployment that is frequently observed in emerging economies. It just does not happen. Moreover, a host of theories tell us why it should and will not happen. Unless, of course, you are undergoing rapid structural change in your economy, a typical dynamics of emerging markets. And there you are, a miracle is born.
Now, we have a couple of negative miracles on our hand... Similar to the positive versions, economics has hardly any standardised handle on the problem.
One of the very interesting phenomena in the upswing phase of emerging market development is the switch from export momentum to domestic one. It is interesting, for in almost all the cases, much of the domestic demand that is seen as inherent, home grown etc., keeps being dependent on export performance. It is easier to see this in smaller countries, such as Thailand, Poland, or South Africa, but the past two years also shed light on the very same phenomenon in some of the larger ones, such as Brazil, Russia, and - increasingly obviously - China. Remember the arguments about domestic dynamics in the emerging markets being the new global driving force, voiced at the beginning of this crisis? (This myth fully endorsed by the political classes of the above mentioned emerging markets, less for lack of understanding, and more for good old fashioned political populism. And they were just warming up.)
The trouble is that once you realise that domestic demand is indirectly linked to export performance to larger extent than you previously thought (and overall, to a very large extent, especially in the longer run), then your options to weather the crisis are suddenly radically diminished. Especially this kind of crisis, where the global economy is shrinking to such an extent. For all economies, emerging or mature, this translates into policies that try to generate domestic demand, rather than export competitiveness. At first, you would try the old fashioned way: monetary easing with fiscal tightening (or at least the promise of the latter). Then, when it does not work (independent whether the reason for disfunctionality lies in the monetary transmission mechanism being screwed up by the local excesses of the capital markets, or the lack of a global policy framework), you move on to the next level: fiscal stimulus. It is less sophisticated, bears more long term risks for your economic system, but hey, that’s what’s left.
This leaves emerging markets in an odd place. Their monetary toolbox had already been generally weaker than that of mature economies. Furthermore, they do not have the advantage of them being the ‘safety’ bit in ‘flight to safety’, thus liquidity dries up even faster. And as domestic demand turns out to be much more dependent on the - collapsing - exports, they would need disproportionately large fiscal stimuli. In most emerging markets, the space for the latter had already been tight. The government spending needs - and demands - during the rapid structural change years had been phenomenal, pretty much exhausting the fiscal capacities. And of course there are those that had been irresponsible on top of it (Hungary, Argentina, Iceland, Ukraine, I am talking to you!).
So, you are an emerging market crisis-policy-maker. What can you do? You will certainly go to the end of your fiscal abilities, if there is any left. But, for most, this direction will yield very little. The only strategy there is left for you to play is going back to ‘emerging markets amidst globalisation 101’, and return to generating export momentum. This is a tall order, for the global markets are contracting, and countries are locking up. However, you do not have much else left. (Especially, if the crisis lasts much longer, and even those little remaining fiscal capacities will have been used up.) Some emerging markets will be able to play this game very well. Look at the behaviour of Singapore during crises of the past decades, for a textbook case. Some others, however, will have major problems, for their past lack of structural reforms and the tax legacy of their past, and current, fiscal overspending will leave no room for measures to improve export competitiveness.
Significant currency devaluation (with or without government default), or serious social discontent will follow. Or both.