Emerging economies faring better in downturn

Look at the state of the economy from anywhere in America or Europe these days and all is gloomy: Governments deep in debt. Consumers reluctant to spend. Businesses afraid to hire.

But gaze out from the vantage of some of the world’s emerging economies and the picture gets brighter. Although few will pretend that their fates are immune to the ripples of a globalized economy, new players such as China, Brazil and India see their rising prosperity as less dependent on the credit cards of Western consumers. Their governments are also less burdened by debt, and they retain confidence that better days lie ahead.

Globalization means that people and economies are connected more than ever, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone swims or sinks together.

The most dispiriting news these days comes out of the developed nations of the West. In the United States, the mix of high government debt, hostility to stimulus spending and diving consumer confidence raises fear that the country is entering an extended period of stagnation. Across the Atlantic, debt levels have spooked bond markets, forced humiliating bailouts and led to brutal cuts that call the European welfare state into question.


Even the shining star of the German economy, whose robust expansion last year was the envy of its neighbors, has abruptly dimmed. Last week, Germany reported that its economy grew by just 0.1% in the second quarter, which followed the grim bulletin that the French economy had flat-lined.

Diego Iscaro, a senior economist with IHS Global Insight in London, is not forecasting a double-dip recession for Europe yet. The fundamentals in the core members of the 17-nation Eurozone remain sound.

But the same can’t be said of laggards such as Greece and Portugal. And the dismaying capacity of Europe’s leaders to dither and delay in the face of the gravest challenge to confront the euro means that anything can happen.

“We’ve been having uncertainty for quite a long time, and it’s here to stay until the debt crisis is solved for good,” Iscaro said.

For Germany, the world’s second-largest exporter, part of its impressive recovery from the last downturn hinged on selling products such as precision equipment to the world’s largest exporter, China. Other countries, including the U.S., have relied on breakneck growth in the Middle Kingdom as a bulwark against a major global recession.

Now many of the growth forecasts for China predict a slowing there too.

From 9% a year to 8%.

China’s banks are well capitalized, its tightly controlled currency is shielded from market forces and its increasing share of exports to emerging markets is reducing its exposure to soft American and European demand.


Across emerging economies, there is the feeling that a corner has been turned. In Asia, the demons of the 1998 financial crisis are being exorcised. From the cocky entrepreneurs of New Delhi to the Turkish businessmen fanning out across the Middle East and Central Asia, this time their fate seems to lie in their own hands.

Brazil is now an agricultural superpower and natural-resources giant, shipping vast quantities of commodities to China, the world’s workshop. Both countries’ domestic consumption levels are rising, enticing foreign investors, including Western companies, in search of opportunities no longer available at home. Their governments have more flexibility to act, unburdened by crippling debt levels.

The big worry in China, as in other heated economies, is inflation. In 2008, the Beijing regime flooded the economy with stimulus money to brush off the financial crisis with ease. But it would be hard-pressed to do that a second time without exacerbating problems such as a property bubble and rising prices.

The cost of pork, China’s staple meat, has soared so high that the country has had to tap into its vaunted frozen reserves. Shoppers in the eastern city of Xiamen are reportedly being asked to present their identification cards to butchers to make sure they don’t exceed their one-time 11-pound limit of reserve pork.


“There are no good options at the moment,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist and managing director at Silk Road Associates in the Chinese capital. “They could double down with stimulus, but they’d get much less bang for their buck and a lot more bad loans.”

Other emerging economies also are wary of knock-on effects from developed countries’ economic ills.

For South Africa, growing at a solid rate of 3.5%, depressed demand for its commodities and exports, especially in Europe, would aggravate unemployment in a land that already lost 900,000 jobs during the previous recession.

In Mexico, the cliche about the world sneezing if the United States catches a cold gets taken a step further. If their northern neighbor comes down with a cold, Mexicans like to say, they get pneumonia.


The country has yet to recuperate fully from the last recession, when its economy shrank by more than 6% in 2008. Average wages are lower than before, few jobs are being created except in the “informal” economy (street vendors, day laborers and the like), and banks have been stingy with credit. Even so, some economists say Mexico is better poised to weather a U.S. downturn this time around. It enjoys ample foreign reserves, stable exchange and inflation rates, a sound banking system and cheap labor.

In a recent speech, Mexican President Felipe Calderon struck the upbeat note that resounds in emerging economies across the globe, in some places tinged with caution, in others full-throated.

“We have serious problems, of course, and the proximity to the largest economy in the world and its problems … has affected our population,” Calderon said. “Nevertheless … we have succeeded in moving ahead in an extraordinarily complex environment.”


Times staff writers Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City and David Pierson in Beijing contributed to this report.