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Investors Turn Away From Emerging Markets


In the world of global finance, emerging markets where a hot place for American investors to park their money. The hope was that fast growth in developing economies, like Brazil, Turkey and China, could yield higher returns. But there's been a big shift in recent weeks. Investors have been yanked their money out of the emerging markets in a big way. The unrest in Egypt and protests in Brazil and Turkey are only part of the story.

To find out more, we turned - as we often do - to David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal.

Good morning.

DAVID WESSEL: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now David, was it just fast growth, or is there more to why emerging markets were so attractive to investors?

WESSEL: Well, fast growth was a big part of it. After all, Europe, the U.S. and Japan have been growing extremely slowly, and so investors - just like big companies - were looking to growth in emerging markets as a way to make more money. But there was also the factor that interest rates here in the United States were so low that people were looking for higher yield somewhere else, and emerging markets were happy to take their money.

MONTAGNE: From what I understand, investors started pulling their money out of emerging markets before actually, all the unrest in Egypt and Turkey and Brazil. So what was that all about?

WESSEL: Well, the first thing that happened was a big change in economic policy in Japan. A new government, a new central bank, and they really started pumping up their economy, and suddenly the Japanese stock market took off. So a lot of investors said wow, that's a good deal, and they took money out of emerging markets and put it in Japan. Then, in the United States, Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, began talking about his hopes that the U.S. economy soon will be strong enough to be weaned off very low interest rates here. Well, that changed some of the calculation of the investors, and again, they placed different bets and emerging markets where the losers. If you look at emerging market, bond, mutual funds, where individual investors put their money, in the past five weeks, more money has come out of those funds that at any time since the worst of the financial crisis in 2009. So a lot of ordinary investors said well, if interest rates are up a little bit in the U.S., I'm no longer willing to take the risk to put my money in Indonesia or Thailand, I'd like to have it in the United States, or Europe or someplace.

MONTAGNE: How much in all of this is China a factor?

WESSEL: Well...

MONTAGNE: I mean that would be the biggest emerging market of them all.

WESSEL: Yes. China is a huge factor. I mean it is the biggest emerging market of all. And importantly, it has been an enormous source of demand for all the other emerging markets. I mean they're building highways and pipelines in Brazil to get commodities from the remote parts of Brazil to the West Coast so that they can go to China. And China's economy is now slowing, and the slower demand from China is hurting emerging markets all across the globe.

MONTAGNE: So back to that political turmoil in the streets of Turkey and Brazil, and now Egypt, what role is that playing?

WESSEL: It reflects, I believe, an enormous amount of anger for middle-class people about the economic performance of those countries. So it could provoke some political reform but for now, it just scares off investors. I mean it makes people a little reluctant to buy bonds, say, of the Egyptian government, when they don't know if it's going to be there.

MONTAGNE: All in all, it would seem that this would be hurting these countries. I mean foreign investment has played a pretty crucial role in helping these economies to develop, now billions of dollars is disappearing. What kind of impact are we seeing on these countries that are emerging markets?

WESSEL: Well, there are two kinds of foreign investment. One is investment in plants, and office buildings and shares, and that tends to kind of be sticky. But then there's this short-term money, it's often called hot money, money that went into buy government bonds in order to make a higher return. And the trouble with that money is it tends to flow out just as quickly as it came in. So what do we see? We see currencies in these countries are falling, so that means that they can buy less stuff from abroad, it's more expensive in their currency. And the second thing is the governments have to spend more money, pay higher interest rates when they want to borrow, because there's less appetite for foreign investment.

MONTAGNE: David Wessel is economics editor of The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for joining us again, David.

WESSEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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