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Hit like ton of BRICS: 2013 tough year for emerging markets

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Only recently hailed as the saviours of the world economy, emerging markets had a tough year in 2013, hit by slow growth, market instability and social unrest that have worried investors -- though some analysts say the fear is overblown.

In November, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich world's number-crunching club, lowered its global growth forecast for 2014 by nearly half a point, to 2.7 percent, because of the slowdown in emerging-market economies (EMEs).

The fate of the whole world economy is now tied to that of the emerging markets, it said.

"Contrary to the situation in the early phases of the recovery when stimulus in EMEs had positive spillovers on growth in advanced economies, the global environment may now act as an amplifier and a transmission mechanism for negative shocks from EMEs," it said.

The European Central Bank warned: "Any sharper or more disruptive adjustment in emerging market economies needs to be closely monitored, given the potential for stronger and more persistent euro area impacts."

The "BRICS" countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and other emerging markets had for years been the stars of the world economy, helping pull it through the Great Recession.

Their fast growth compensated for the developed world's stagnation and their currency reserves funded Western debt.

The thirst of emerging market consumers for goods helped tide over Western companies, while their low production costs drove global trade.

But that ground to a halt in 2013.

"We were expecting it for a while, but it's when it emerged," Jennifer Blanke, chief economist at the World Economic Forum, told AFP.

Economic growth dropped sharply in several major emerging markets in 2013.

Russia's growth fell from 3.4 percent in 2012 to 1.5 percent, according to International Monetary Fund data. South Africa's fell from 2.5 percent to 2.0, Mexico's from 3.6 percent to 1.2 and Thailand's from 6.5 percent to 3.1.

Chris Weafer, a partner at consulting firm Macro Advisory in Moscow, said that after becoming "complacent", investors had now woken up to the risks posed by emerging markets.

"It is a necessary change and long overdue," he said.

When China sneezes...

Most worrying of all is China.

Its growth rate fell just 0.1 point in 2013, to 7.6 percent. But that is down from 9.3 percent in 2011 and double-digit growth for much of the decade before.

"Investors had previously assumed China would continue to grow at an annualised eight to nine percent. That is impossible longer term," Weafer said.

Spanish bank BBVA warned that "the possible correction in Chinese growth and that of other emerging economies is a risk factor" for the world economy.

"Many other countries and economies became dependent" on Chinese growth, said UBS in a note on investment prospects for 2014.

"Chinese investment growth fuelled commodity demand and supported many economies as far away as Brazil and Australia," said the bank, warning: "There is no 'China after China'.

"In other words, there will be no superpower growing in double-digit GDP terms now that China is slowing."

Many emerging economies were also hit hard by market instability in 2013. Fear that the US Federal Reserve was about to abruptly end its stimulus measures caused investors to pull out of emerging markets, wreaking havoc on stocks and currencies in several countries.

Several major American and European companies suffered big losses because of the resulting exchange-rate fluctuations.

'More of the pie'

Violent protests in recent years, such as those that hit the Confederations Cup in Brazil and the South African mining industry in 2012, have also focused attention on the risk posed by social unrest in emerging markets.

"We've been seeing (this) recently in Brazil and RSA (South Africa), with people demanding more of the pie, because they're not seeing the improvement happening as quickly as they like," said Blanke.

"Social unrest is a huge risk."

But emerging markets remain a key driver of the world economy.

"Just as the excessive exuberance at the end of the last decade lasted too long and kept expectations too high for EM earnings growth, I now believe that the reversal in sentiment has gone too far in the other direction," said Weafer.

"Nobody doubts that these countries will continue to grow," said Blanke. "It's a risk factor, but it's also the only chance that we have."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131212/hit-ton-brics-2013-tough-year-emerging-markets