A little over 12 months ago, bankers still regarded emerging markets with the kind of excitement usually exhibited by young children approaching their birthdays. Constituting a significant proportion of the world’s land mass, emerging markets seemed to offer almost boundless opportunities as they struggled to close the gap on their more developed neighbours.
Fuelled in particular by the remarkable economic transformation currently taking place in the biggest of their number – the so-called BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China – it became almost conventional wisdom that demand from the newly-rich in these countries would become a force to rival the all-important US consumer.
But when global developed markets started to show signs of the malaise in which they are currently embroiled, emerging markets also reacted dramatically, throwing previous thoughts of decoupling into doubt. Now there is decidedly less consensus regarding their prospects.
It is hard to see a bright future for anyone while the world banking system is in the midst of its current crisis. And it is equally hard to be bullish about manufacturing economies anywhere at a time when debt has spiralled out of control and people are having to cut back to make ends meet.
Yet it also seems premature to write off the BRIC countries. It is difficult to envisage a future in which China is not an economic superpower, regardless of how much its stock markets have been battered this year. And while oil prices have fallen back in recent weeks, there aren’t many economists predicting prices will fall back to the sub-US$20 a barrel range in the near future, which will keep the coffers of many other treasuries healthy. Many emerging markets remain net creditors to the West, and in the current climate, that is an enviable position to be in.
Of course the performance of the regulators and governments of emerging markets have diverged too. The Mexican authorities have won the admiration of many for their handling of their securitisation markets, yet in Brazil the government stands accused of doing too little to help its ailing ABS and debenture markets.
In the Middle East, governments have generally helped the markets by spending their oil wealth on infrastructure and diversifying their economies. In Russia, while the Kremlin has also been careful to accumulate its Stabalisation Fund, its recent record has been tarnished by its mischievous foreign policy.
There is no doubt the credit crunch has made life more difficult for emerging economies that rely on foreign direct investment: recent events have extinguished risk appetites for all but the bravest of financial pioneers. Ultimately investors will look with a more discerning eye at emerging markets, appraising each for its own merits. The question is, how far will sentiment overshoot to the negative in the meantime, with a flight to perceived quality punishing those markets with strong fundamentals?