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In currency rout, emerging nations save US$2.8t war chest

Developing nations are embracing the greater competitiveness that comes with the beating their currencies have taken, leaving their rainy day funds untouched.

[NEW YORK] Developing nations are embracing the greater competitiveness that comes with the beating their currencies have taken, leaving their rainy day funds untouched.

Foreign reserves in the 12 biggest emerging markets, excluding China and countries with pegged currencies, fell about 2 per cent to US$2.8 trillion in 2015, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The actual decline may be smaller because the strengthening dollar reduced the value of other reserve currencies such as the euro.

While China burned through more than US$400 billion in reserves to stabilize the yuan last year, most other developing countries such as Russia and Thailand are tolerating currency depreciation to shore up exports. With lower commodity prices and limited government dollar debt, weaker exchange rates haven't stoked inflation or undermined public financing as they used to.

That suggests central banks are unlikely to stand in the way of further losses in emerging-market currencies unless the rout gets out of hand.

"We're in an environment in which it's relatively benign for allowing currencies to weaken," said Alan Ruskin, the global co-head of foreign-exchange research at Deutsche Bank AG in New York. "Those countries that have exchange-rate flexibility have been using that flexibility."

All 24 major emerging-market currencies except the Hong Kong dollar declined against the greenback in 2015 as slower economic growth, falling commodity prices and the first interest-rate increase in the US in almost a decade led to capital outflows. A Bloomberg gauge of emerging-market currencies fell about 15 per cent last year, following the 12 per cent drop in 2014, the worst two-year performance since at least 1999.

Still, most policy makers opted to leave their currencies alone.

Russia didn't dip into its US$369 billion of reserves in 2015 even as the ruble tumbled 19 per cent. South Korea and Thailand held theirs steady at US$368 billion and US$148 billion, respectively. India even took the advantage of the stability of the rupee to replenish its war chest, swelling the reserves 11 per cent to US$328 billion.

Even in China, there are signs the central bank is taking a different tack to preserve its US$3.4 trillion foreign reserves.

The People's Bank of China let the yuan drop to a four-year low in December after going through US$213 billion in the stockpile during the previous four months to stabilize the currency. China intervened repeatedly in foreign-exchange markets after an unexpected currency devaluation in August triggered a flight of capital.

"The hype about huge reserve losses" in China was "overdone" Jens Nordvig, a managing director of currency research at Nomura Holdings Inc, said by e-mail. With a trade surplus of almost US$600 billion a year and stability in capital outflow, it's not "obvious" that the central bank will continue dipping into reserves to hold the yuan, said Nordvig.

Some commodity producing nations cannot resist the urge to touch the emergency funds. Malaysia's stockpile dropped 18 per cent last year to $95 billion, the biggest decline among major reserve holders, as the central bank sold dollars to stem the ringgit's 19 per cent slump. Saudi Arabia, the world's third largest holder after China and Japan, spent US$97 billion, or 13 per cent of its reserves, to hold the riyal peg at 3.75 per dollar.

Some of these economies can't afford to keep drawing down reserves should commodity prices stay down for longer, according to Robert Sinche, a global strategist at Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC in New York.

"People have to make bigger adjustments to their policy plans," Sinche said. "You'll see more countries where the reserves depletion just becomes so significant that they no longer can sustain." Historically, a currency crisis has led to sovereign defaults, bank failures and hyperinflation in developing nations. This time, the side-effects have been contained.

Governments nowadays mostly borrow money in their own currencies, limiting their exposure to foreign-exchange risk. Developing countries' foreign-currency debt dropped to 25 per cent of their gross domestic product in 2013 from 40 per cent in 1999, according to the International Monetary Fund.

While companies have loaded up on dollar debt, the three- year currency depreciation hasn't resulted in a string of corporate defaults. This suggests that businesses are either exporters receiving dollar revenues or hedging their currency exposure.

On the inflation front, the 25 per cent decline in commodity prices over the past year has taken some pressure off consumer costs. The IMF estimated that inflation in emerging markets dropped to 5.5 per cent in 2015 from a five-year average of about 6 per cent.

"The dynamics of currencies and reserves is really changing," said Amherst Pierpont's Sinche. "We're shifting toward a world where countries are much more willing to let their currencies absorb the shock and continue to hold on to their accumulated reserves."