Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Aug 19, 2022

Is an EM Debt Crisis Coming?


Welcome to Thoughts on the market. I'm Simon Waever, Morgan Stanley's Global Head of EM Sovereign Credit Strategy. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, today, I'll address the possibility of an emerging markets debt crisis. It's Friday, August 19th, 12p.m. in New York.

The most frequent question I get from investors right now is, 'are we heading towards an EM debt crisis?' It's not unreasonable to ask this. After all, a lot of the ingredients that led to prior EM debt crises are in place today. First, EM countries have taken on a lot of debt, not just since the pandemic, but in the past ten years, meaning most countries are at or near multi-decade highs. Second, global central banks are quickly hiking rates, with the Fed in particular a key driver in tightening global financial conditions. Third, which is related, is that servicing and rolling over that debt has suddenly become much more expensive, driven not just by a stronger dollar, but also much higher bond yields. And then fourth, which is perhaps the most important one, is that today we are as close to an extended sudden stop in flows to EM as we have been in a long time. That means that many countries have lost access to markets, so that even if they were willing to pay up to borrow, there's just no demand.

Markets are telling us the risks are rising as well. Outside of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the 2020 pandemic, you'd have to go back 20 years to find EM sovereign credit spreads trading as wide. And high yield credit spreads are much wider than investment grade spreads, so markets are differentiating already.

Finally, just looking at actual sovereign defaults and restructurings, they're already higher than in recent history. We have had six in the past two years and now already three in 2022, namely Russia, Belarus and Sri Lanka.

From here, there are likely to be more defaults, but three key points are worth making. One, the countries at risk now are very different to the prior debt crisis in EM. Two, none would be systemic defaults. And three, they would not all happen at the same time.

Large countries like Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia don't seem to be at risk of defaulting. They are completely different to what they were 20 to 30 years ago. They're now inflation targeters, have mostly free-floating currencies, meaning imbalances are less likely to build up, have large effects reserves and have the majority of that debt in local currency.

Instead, the concern now is mostly with the newer issuers that benefited from the abundant global liquidity in the past ten years. And by this I mean the frontier credits, many of which are in Africa, but also in Asia and Central America. And then it's key to actually look at who has upcoming Eurobond maturities, as not all countries do. If we look out 12 to 18 months, Pakistan, Ghana, El Salvador, Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia and Turkey stand out as actually needing to repay Eurobonds while having very elevated yields today. But even among these credits, the International Monetary Fund stands ready to help and there are FX reserves that can be used. So, it's not clear to me that you're going to see multiple defaults and even if you were to see two or more defaults among them, they're very unlikely to be systemic.

But, all in, while there's no denying that EM countries are facing debt sustainability issues, let's not paint all EM with the same brush. The nuances should make for some exciting years ahead for sovereign debt analysts and should also open up the potential for significant alpha within the asset class.

Thanks for listening. If you enjoy the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share Thoughts on the Market with a friend or colleague today.


In the past two years Emerging Market sovereign debt has seen rising risks given increased borrowing, higher interest rates and a greater number of defaults, leading investors to wonder, are we heading towards an EM debt crisis?

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