Growing Pains in the BRICs
By Investment Strategy Group
September 27, 2012
The "BRIC" countries have been a focal point of investor interest since the early 2000s. Brazil, Russia, India and China account for about half of the world's population, boast vast natural resources and are among the fastest-growing economies in the world. That said, progress at times has been uneven. Since 2010, the MSCI BRIC Index has largely underperformed the S&P 500 as economic growth flagged. In this edition of Strategic Spotlight, we discuss current conditions and the outlook for these markets.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, the BRIC countries enjoyed a strong economic rebound as forceful policy measures reignited growth. However, a surge in capital inflows stoked inflation and led to tightening measures in 2010 and 2011. Currently, the BRICs are experiencing varying stages of easing as growth and inflation decline. Unlike the synchronous rebound we saw in 2009, progress in the BRIC countries is diverging due in part to idiosyncratic policy initiatives aimed at managing structural changes within their specific economies.
BRIC GROWTH RATES HAVE SLOWED
Brazil’s real GDP growth declined from 9.3% in the first quarter of 2010 to 0.5% in the second quarter of 2012—a number that disappointed investors looking for 3.5% GDP growth for all of 2012. The slowdown is partly a function of so-called macro-prudential measures—meant to fight inflation and control the appreciation of the real currency due to capital inflows—as well as a slowdown in exports. The tightening measures have had the desired impact of reducing inflation from 7.2% from last September to 4.1% in August 2012, but have also caused investment spending to plummet as the outlook for commodities (a key sector for Brazil) deteriorated. Domestic consumption, which accounts for about 60% of Brazilian GDP, has held up surprisingly well, supported by the country’s still-low unemployment rate.
Since the end of 2011, the Brazilian central bank has reduced interest rates, complementing the government’s recent accommodative fiscal measures such as payroll tax cuts. The OECD expects growth to pick up gradually in the third quarter as these measures work through the system.
Russia: The Limitations of Oil
The Russian economy has held up reasonably well in the past few years despite turmoil in Europe. Since the end of June 2012, real GDP has grown at around 4% annually, which is close to the post-crisis peak of around 5% in 2010. This good fortune is mainly due to relatively high oil prices and, most recently, fiscal spending ahead of the presidential elections in March 2012. Unlike Brazil, Russia is grappling with rising inflation as record-low unemployment has supported wage growth. In September, the country’s central bank surprised investors by hiking interest rates as inflation had come in above the bank’s target range of 5%–6%.
For the most part, Russia’s domestic consumption has been strong but the impact of declining oil demands from key trading partners such as Europe and China could have spillover effects—weakening the outlook for budget and current account balances. Concerns about an overheating economy have led to predictions that further tightening measures could be introduced, marginally reducing growth in 2013.
PERFORMANCE AND VALUATIONS
Source: FactSet as of Sept 17, 2012.
Despite a year-to-date equity market return of about 20% (see display), India’s real GDP growth continuously slowed to about 4% in the second quarter—a level last seen during the crisis of 2008–2009. Declining global growth, reductions in foreign investments and monetary tightening measures have contributed to a slowdown in manufacturing and services. In June, government agencies reported that foreign direct investments had decreased by as much as 67% from a year ago, as economic reforms stalled and business conditions were increasingly viewed as being biased against foreigners.
In addition, India is dealing with rising consumer price inflation, as recent cuts in government fuel subsidies and the effects of the monsoon season feed through the system. Consumer price inflation ramped up to 10% in August, reducing the scope for further rate cuts by the Reserve Bank of India. Moreover, warnings of a downgrade have been issued by rating agencies, given that India’s government finances are weaker than other BRIC countries. Investors are closely watching reform measures designed to promote competition and improve market efficiency following the decision last week to expand foreign companies’ access to the retail and airline industries.
China: Political Transitions
Recent data indicate that China continues to slow from tightening measures enacted in 2010–2011 and a decline in exports. Investors have been somewhat surprised by the government’s passivity toward this slowdown. Following small cuts in interest rates and reserve requirement ratios earlier in the year, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) has not done more despite inflation dipping below its 3%–4% target. And while most analysts did not expect a repeat of the 2008–2009 RMB 4.0T fiscal stimulus, the government has acted less forcefully than expected.
The failure to act could be a result of widely reported complications in the current once-in-a-decade change to the country’s political leadership. Moreover, the PBoC could be concerned about magnifying the inflationary impact of loose monetary policy in developed countries. The political transition is expected to conclude by March 2013, potentially paving the way for better policy engagement. Regardless, the IMF expects China’s growth to reaccelerate next year.
A More Nuanced Progression
In the past decade, the BRIC countries have experienced rapid growth, but are now showing signs of slowing down as cheap labor and abundant resources are beginning to yield a diminishing impact on their economies. As such, investors should consider looking towards the rising middle class to lead the charge in driving growth.
Before we reach that point, however, we believe some structural reforms will need to be made. Investors should remain vigilant of the various policy prescriptions during this period to avoid potential speed bumps. Not every policy change will be successful, but if imbalances are adequately addressed, the BRIC countries should continue to offer investment opportunity.
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