The Big Trends in the Global Economy

Global Growth

A lot has seemingly happened in the global economy in recent months, from a plunge in the oil price to a surge in the value of the US dollar against foreign currencies to an election in Greece that led to renewed fears about the possibility that the euro zone would break apart. But what’s been the upshot of all these changes? The latest World Economic Outlook report from the International Monetary Fund provides some data to answer that question.

According to the IMF’s report, the global economy is expected to grow by 3.5% this year. That’s lower than the projection of 3.8% growth that the IMF made six months ago. The change is largely the result of slower expected growth from emerging markets (5.0% six months ago versus 4.3% now). The prospects for developed economies, on the other hand, have actually improved slightly. While the estimated 2015 growth for the US hasn’t changed (it’s still 3.1%), the IMF boosted its growth estimates for the euro area and Japan.

Even though expectations have declined for emerging economies as a whole, not every country has a similar story. Six months ago the IMF expected a positive growth rate this year in Russia and Brazil; now it expects both countries’ economies to get smaller. The anticipated growth rate for China has also declined, although it’s still very high at 6.8%. India has gone in the other direction. Six months ago the IMF was projecting that India’s growth this year would be 6.4%. The latest estimate is 7.5%.

It’s important to remember that there’s only a weak link between economic growth and stock market performance, so simply buying stocks of fast-growing countries (or stocks of countries where the economic outlook has improved) probably isn’t a good idea. In fact, China and Russia have been among the best-performing stock markets so far this year. Still, thinking about the global economy in terms of these numbers may make the big-picture trends more apparent.

Could Brazil Be the Next Japan and India?

Japan India Brazil

In recent years the world has experienced two elections in large countries that ushered in new governments pledging dramatic economic reforms and led to surging stock markets. In Japan in December 2012, the election of Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party led to economic reforms known as “Abenomics” and big stock market gains in early 2013. In India, the election in May of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party also led to higher stock prices. Could Brazil’s stock market similarly benefit from its upcoming election?

Brazil’s poll, which will be held on October 5th (with a possible runoff vote later in October), pits the incumbent president, Dilma Rousseff, against a slew of opposition candidates. The most popular of these opposition candidates is Marina Silva, who only became a presidential candidate when her running mate was killed in a plane crash. Polls have shown Silva tied with or slightly leading Rousseff in a potential runoff vote.

A Silva victory could have large implications for Brazilian stocks mainly because investors tend to dislike Rousseff. Brazil has suffered from weak economic growth and high inflation in recent years, and its stock market has underperformed other emerging markets. Many investors have blamed these occurrences on Rousseff’s policies. Silva has advocated more restrained fiscal policies, reducing the inflation rate, and free trade agreements, all of which tend to be popular with investors.

Of course no two countries are identical, so there’s no guarantee that the Japan/India scenario will replay itself in Brazil. One of the biggest differences is that by the end of their campaigns Abe and Modi were romping to massive victories, while the Brazilian candidates are locked in a tight battle. But if Silva is able to pull out a victory, and has enough of a mandate to initiate investor-friendly reforms, Brazil’s stock market may follow the playbook set by Japan and India.

The Rise of Political Risk

One important trend in global financial markets during the last few years has been a rise in political risk, a concept referring to political changes that could affect the value of an investment. The number of events associated with political risk—such as elections, mass protests, and military interventions—has increased by 54% since 2011, according to a study by analysts at Citigroup. This kind of increase has a couple key implications for investors.

The first is that it can affect the relative performance of emerging markets versus developed markets. Interestingly, while political risk has historically been most closely associated with poorer countries, in recent years it has appeared in some of the wealthier emerging markets and even developed ones.

In emerging markets there have been protests in a wide range of countries, including Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey. In developed markets, political posturing opened up the possibility that the United States government would default on its debt in the summer of 2011, and extremist parties opposed to the European Union did well in recent elections for the European Parliament.

A continued increase in political risk would likely hurt emerging markets more than developed markets, even if the risks aren’t isolated to emerging markets themselves. Investment typically flows from emerging markets into “safer” markets (such as the United States, Switzerland, and Japan) when perceived risk increases. This shift can take place even when the risk originates in the developed countries, as was the case when emerging markets were pummeled during the 2008 financial crisis.

A second implication of increased political risk is that it may lead to more divergence in the performance of stocks in different countries. This trend is already evident in some of the countries that have recently experienced notable political events. For example, Russian stocks have lost 8% so far this year (and at one point were down close to 25%) as the country became involved in territorial battles with Ukraine. Indian stocks, by contrast, have risen more than 20% this year as political power shifted in the country’s May elections.

EM 2014 Performance

Will Elections Revive India’s Economy?

After soaring in the middle of the last decade, India’s economy has struggled in recent years. The country’s GDP growth rate has declined from over 10% in 2010 to less than 5% in 2012 and 2013. At the same time the inflation rate has remained close to 10%. Many of the root causes of the economic woes are related to the government: the India suffers from poor infrastructure, stifling bureaucracy, and endemic corruption. Optimists therefore think that India’s election, which started last week and continues until May 12th, could be a turning point for the country’s economy.

The great hope for the optimists is Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been leading in the polls. While he was leader of Gujarat, a state in western India, it attracted business investment and grew substantially faster than the country as a whole. His supporters argue that he could pull off a similar trick at the national level, reviving India’s economic fortunes.

It’s not much of a stretch to think that a new leader could have a profound effect: renewed economic optimism after the election of Shinzo Abe in Japan at the end of 2012 led to a surge in that country’s stock market. Yet even if Modi’s party wins the election, he’ll have a number of challenges to overcome.

Political power in India is split between the federal government and the states, and even at the federal level the leading party often has to share power with smaller parties to get a majority in Parliament. And the vested interests that benefit from the current dysfunction could prove too powerful an obstacle. After all, the recent economic slowdown has been overseen by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist who was himself a hero to reformers for his role in transforming India’s economy as Finance Minister during the early 1990’s.