Trade War Piles Pain on China-Exporter Emerging Markets

(Bloomberg) -- Just when it looked like things couldn’t get much worse for emerging markets, along comes a trade war. And it’s hitting emerging-market commodity producers and exporters to China especially hard.

Take Thailand and South Africa, which each ship about 20 percent of their foreign-bound goods to China. The Thai baht has just reversed year-to-date gains against the dollar, while the South African rand is down 1.9 percent this week, the most among 24 major emerging currencies tracked by Bloomberg, and near a seven-month low.

The pain is evident in raw material prices. The Bloomberg Commodity Index has slumped 4.5 percent this month, its worst performance since July 2016, while the London Metal Exchange LMEX Index was down 5.8 percent in the five days through Wednesday.

“If the setback for trade is big enough to slow down the global economy, which is likely to be the case, you’d expect commodity prices to decline or no longer rise,” Cristian Maggio, head of emerging-market strategy at TD Securities in London, said in an interview. Countries closely tied to Beijing through exports of commodities or manufactured goods, such as Russia and Asian economies like South Korea, are particularly vulnerable, he said.

Donald Trump’s pledge this week to place tariffs on a further $200 billion of Chinese imports is heaping extra pressure on developing nations at at time when they’re already being roiled by the strength of the dollar and rising U.S. bond yields. The fear is that a trade war would slow growth in China, the biggest consumer of raw materials.

Trade War Piles Pain on China-Exporter Emerging Markets

South Korea’s won and Russia’s ruble are both depreciating for a third week, with the former at its weakest against the dollar since mid-November and the latter close to an 18-month low.

South Korea sends almost one-third of its exports to China, which is also Russia’s biggest trading partner, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Small open economies in East Asia, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, look most exposed to U.S. tariffs on imports from China due to their role in supply chains,” said William Jackson, a senior economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London. “Likewise Chile, which produces copper used in China’s electronics sector, would also be affected.”

Trade War Piles Pain on China-Exporter Emerging Markets

South Africa, which sells more than half its mineral exports to China, is also exposed, according to FirstRand Bank Ltd.

“The rand is caught in the crossfire as we have little to offer,” said Isaah Mhlanga, an economist at FirstRand in Johannesburg. “Growth is weak, the South African Reserve Bank cut rates in March and remains on hold while other emerging-market central banks bolster their attractiveness by hiking rates. This leaves the rand as vulnerable as taking a naked summer swim with jelly fish.”

While emerging currencies would have been under pressure in the second half of this year anyway because of monetary tightening by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the pain will be exacerbated for those nations whose economies stutter if the trade spat escalates, according to Societe Generale SA.

“Emerging-market currencies will depreciate with periodic episodes of stress during the late-cycle Fed tightening phase,” said Jason Daw, a SocGen strategist in Singapore. “It will get really bad if the Fed is hiking when growth is slowing.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.