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Emerging markets – it’s our turn

My brother has just returned to South Africa after living in Geneva for 14 years. He is going to reside in Johannesburg and work for Discovery Health and he is deliriously happy.

What is exhausting, though, is the question (accompanied by a look of near disbelief) asked by almost every South African, from the travel agent to his friends to the real estate agent and the car salesman: “Why are you coming back? Especially now?”

What is it about us South Africans that make us truly believe that we are die vark in die verhaal (the pig in the tale) in every story? Whether it is the economy, politics, the currency, corruption, you name it – we really do seem to believe that this South Africa is the only country in the world with problems and that anything that goes wrong is directly self-inflicted.

A few points are worth noting.

Firstly, most of the pain we are feeling economically is currently being felt more or less similarly across all emerging markets. Very simply, it is our turn. For the first three years after the global financial collapse, former US Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke plumped up the global economy with billions of US dollars and emerging markets were a happy beneficiary of this liquidity. South Africans looked on in amazement as the developed world came close to collapse, companies slashed their workforces and these developed economies ground to a halt. Meanwhile, life in South Africa was good – we were still growing, retrenchments were there (but not widespread) and the sun was shining.

But then, inevitably and eventually, the developed world started healing. Today the US economy is recovering, economic numbers are improving and they’re fast becoming energy neutral. Producing all their own oil and gas will make them more competitive, improve their deficit and reduce their debt.

On the other hand, the European recovery – whilst nowhere near the US recovery – seems intact, and while they are hardly growing, they are at least no longer shrinking. Their risk now is deflation, although recent data has been encouraging and any signs of deflation will be doused quickly enough through monetary methods. Britain is almost booming with growth forecasts for 2014 being raised from 1.5% a year ago, to the current predictions from the Bank of England of over 3%.

So with all the good news coming out of the developed world, the quantitative easing drip is slowly being removed. Global investors, seeing the recovery, also decided they could generate decent returns closer to home.

Suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath the feet of the emerging markets currencies and stock markets. What was described in general economic parlance as the BRICS (a grouping to which we as South Africans felt unworthy, but delighted to be part of) quickly became referred to by many pundits as a Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept.

From Argentina to Indonesia, via Turkey, economies are slowing, unemployment is growing and currencies have been smashed. But the time for the emerging markets is not over. Many are in far better shape than 1998, and in many cases, they are in better shape than the developed world. They have lower debt to GDP ratios, more reserves, better demographics, higher growth prospects, and are generally more resilient.

As members of this ‘club’ known as emerging markets, we benefit when times are good, but similarly we suffer when sentiment towards emerging markets sours. As South Africans, we sometimes delude ourselves that we are ‘first world’, yet whether we like it or not, we are just another emerging market. Interestingly, there was a time we experienced contagion as a result of our proximity to Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa. Today, South Africa will lift from our current growth impasse due to our preferred emerging market status. Preferred, ironically, due to our proximity to the rampant growth economies of Africa.

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