Monthly Global EM Outlook, Trump Policies and Inflation

From the current starting point, the near-term inflation outlook is generally unthreatening in most markets that have a large weight in the international benchmark indices for EM local currency debt.

Inflation has risen in some EM countries during the past half year in response to currency depreciation and increases in global oil prices; but the CPI impact of exchange rate weakness has in most cases diminished and the oil price effect is probably about to peak. Beyond the group of EM countries that now have large weights in the EM debt indices, it is notable that core inflation is on the rise in China.

 The current level of core inflation (2.2% year-on-year) is not seriously disconcerting but if it continues to creep upwards then it will eventually become a constraint on China’s monetary policy. This represents a risk for the entire EM/commodities complex, but it is more likely to be a risk for the second half of 2017 than a focal point in the next few months. More imminently, the main risk of abrupt policy rate increases in the EM universe comes from the US in the form of the possibility of a surprisingly large batch of Fed rate hikes during the remainder of the year and/or a border adjustment tax. Either of these shocks could force a swathe of EM central banks to choose between raising their policy rates substantially or having to live with undesirably steep currency depreciation.

Given the current predominantly unthreatening EM inflation trends and residual labor market capacity slack in many countries, a large share of the EM central banks – especially in Asia – look set to be able to leave their own policy interest rates unchanged if the Fed keeps raising rates at a gentle pace and if the US border adjustment tax fades away.

An important source of inflation volatility in the EM world in recent years has EM currency depreciation (in nominal trade-weighted terms) that has led to increases in prices not only for imports, but also for those domestically produced goods that compete against foreignproduced items either in the domestic market or the export market. However, this problem dissipated in most of the EM world during the course of 2016, and only a few of the large EM countries – Mexico and Turkey to be precise – are seeing this problem unfold right now

Two other large EM countries – Brazil and Russia – are in the opposite camp. Inflation has fallen sharply in both countries in the past year. This reflects in part a swing from large-scale currency depreciation in late 2015 and early 2016 to equally forceful currency appreciation during the past 12 months. Deep recession, widening output gaps, and cautious monetary policy in both countries have also helped contain inflation. The view of our Brazil-based economists is that recent currency appreciation will continue to help drive down the country’s inflation in the present year whereas the main drivers of last year’s fall in inflation were a large decline in the pace of adjustment in government controlled prices (in part reflecting currency dynamics and a big change in global oil price inflation), the depth of the recession and, related to this, weakened wage pressure in the labor market.

To be sure, the behavior of EM currencies, inflation and policy rates would be highly likely to become much messier if the Fed were to accelerate the pace of its rate hikes substantially beyond what is currently priced into the US rates curve, perhaps in response to stronger wage data or aggressive future plans for unfunded US tax cuts. There is also, in our view, a very real risk to EM investors associated with the plan of Republican members of US Congress for border adjustment taxation (BAT), or from the possible imposition by the US of other types of import taxation. As we have argued multiple times on these pages, the BAT and import tariffs are likely to be highly dollarsupportive. If Trump’s decides to support either, and if he secures congressional approval, dollar-based holders of EM local-currency-denominated assets are likely to take a hit.

It might seem inviting to think that the BAT would help curb inflation in the EM world, because it would be likely to drive down the dollar price that EM-based importers pay for goods from the US (as US exporters would be entitled to a new subsidy) while also driving down the dollar price that EM-based exporters would obtain from sales to the US (because their sales would be subject to taxation at the US border). But the inflation “benefit” would be eroded by EM currency depreciation against the dollar. EM currency depreciation would most likely be sufficient to drive the local-currency prices for EM countries’ exports and imports (in trade with the US) almost all the way back to their pre-BAT levels.