A Train Wreck in Slow Motion

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently concluded an Asset Quality Review (AQR) of large Indian (primarily) government owned banks.  The outcome of the review was appalling.  Two years into a Non Performing Loan (NPL) recognition cycle, banks had large ticket NPLs that had still not been provided for.  

The Chairman of State Bank of India Arundhati Bhattacharya has been vociferous in her opposition of the AQR and the manner in which the RBI has gone about it.  In the defense of her bank she has said that although the identified loans are not being serviced, they are backed by healthy collateral and that the borrowers have positive EBITDA. Unfortunately, her argument does not hold water. In a liquidity or debt crisis, the value of collateral is not its appraised value but rather its market clearing or transaction value.  When collateral needs to be enforced, arguments like thin markets, weak economic conditions, tight liquidity and buyers' strike don't count. The reality is that these accounts have become NPLs because it is unlikely the assets are saleable even at substantial haircuts from their appraised values.

The reason the US financial system has always rebounded is because of the ruthlessness with which problem assets have been culled by it during crises.  The Resolution Trust Corporation of the early nineties conducted fire sales of otherwise good assets and quickly restored health to the US financial system.  The $700 billion TARP program of the US government during the 2008 crisis did not lose a penny for the US taxpayer. However, the story was anything but happy for shareholders of AIG, Citigroup, Wachovia, WaMu, Merill Lynch etc.

I believe that among emerging markets India has one of the strongest and most well regulated financial and banking systems.  I believe that the Indian economy has been through a gut wrenching slowdown and consolidation over the previous five years and that it looks very healthy prospectively. While I am not a big fan of banking as a business in the current environment, I believe that most of the rot in the Indian banking system is out in the open.  Given the fact that India is a net importer of energy and commodities, the global commodity collapse is helping India's fiscal situation and India's macro indicators are on a sound footing. However, the scenario in India's emerging market brethren could not be more different. The picture there looks like that of a train wreck in slow motion.

The Emerging Market script today looks very different from that of the nineties when sequentially Mexico, the Asian tigers and Russia went bust.  Those crises were all driven by too much foreign debt, fiscal and monetary imprudence and insufficient foreign exchange reserves.  After 15 years of unprecedented fiscal and monetary expansion in emerging markets driven by China's insatiable demand for commodities, the situation looks different. Foreign exchange reserves are large, lead by the big daddy of them all, China with $3 trillion.  Sovereign debt in foreign currency does not seem to be as large and as much of a problem as earlier. And finally, stimulus seems to have become the name of the game with governments everywhere willing to step in all the time to support panics.  The bond vigilantes seem to have gone into hibernation.  

But that is where the differences end. Nothing has changed in the underlying economies of emerging markets. Government spending remains high, tax collections remain poor, corruption remains high, welfare has expanded at an unprecedented rate with the size of economies and education, skill and healthcare remain as bad as ever.  The one engine that had kept all these issues under the carpet for a long time, unprecedentedly high prices and insatiable demand of commodities by China, has come to an abrupt halt.

The sanguine camp loves to point to the absence of crisis triggers and the cushion of large foreign exchange reserves. This is why I refer to the crisis in emerging markets as a train wreck in slow motion.  A small breach can sink a very large ship, therefore the important thing to focus on is the underlying fundamentals of emerging markets and not the cushions and triggers. 

In a recent discussion on the Russian economy, I heard a very silly argument.  The commentator stated that the reason the Russian economy is not facing a crisis is because although the price of oil has fallen from $100 to $40, the rouble has depreciated an equivalent amount from 30 to 75, therefore in rouble terms the price of oil has not fallen and has not disrupted the domestic economy. The commentator further highlighted the absence of material foreign currency sovereign debt and $350 billion of foreign exchange reserves.  The above discussion completely misses the reality of the underlying fundamentals.  Russia produces 10 million barrels of oil per day.  A reduction in revenues from $90 per barrel to $45 per barrel has a direct impact of $162 billion per year.  There has been no change in the spending pattern of the Russian economy during the decline in oil prices.  In addition, due to the disproportionate impact of this reduction in revenues on some sections of the economy more than the others, there has been a rapid deterioration of credit worthiness in those sections.  

In a leveraged global financial system, confidence is everything.  A run on the system, whether a bank or an economy can quickly become self fulfilling. At that time, $350 billion of reserves in Russia and $3 trillion of reserves in China may not prove sufficient.  The only way a run can be stopped is by a lender of last resort. The Federal Reserve and the US treasury stopped the run on the US financial system in 2008.  Emerging markets cannot print dollars.  Multilateral agencies like the IMF have also almost all become irrelevant.  Sovereign wealth funds of countries like Abu Dhabhi and the People's Bank of China have tried to play the role of lender of last resort in controlled instances.  Whether these agencies will have the ability or the mandate to act as lenders of last resort in a full blown crisis is not clear.

That the train has derailed and a wreck is under way is plain for all to see.  Only a voluntary suspension of disbelief can make one think that the worst is behind and somehow everything will go back to being the way it was.  China and therefore the rest of the world does not need what emerging markets are producing and that is unlikely to change at least for the next five years (until China works through its excesses of the previous twenty five years). Emerging markets need more and more of what the rest of the world produces because they have not been prudent with their bounty from the previous fifteen years and have not invested in productive capacities of manufactured goods and services. That there will be a run on their currencies and foreign currency debt (mostly private and bank related this time) is therefore inevitable.  The deeper the cushion of foreign exchange reserves, the slower, longer and therefore more painful the train wreck will be.

As self serving as this statement sounds, I believe that India will emerge as a major economic engine over the next decade or two.  It will experience nowhere close to the meteoric rise that China did in the previous two decades but will hopefully also be spared a spectacular eventual collapse.  However, the seas are likely to be stormy as the crisis in other emerging markets plays out and both the Indian markets and the Indian currency are likely to be tested.  We have not seen the last of the headlines on emerging markets - stay tuned.