Oil Is No Longer the Nemesis of Emerging Markets
A laborer rests during his break as a ship unloads cargo at the Netaji Subhas Docks at Kolkata Port in Kolkata, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Oil Is No Longer the Nemesis of Emerging Markets

(Bloomberg) -- Time was when an oil-price rout almost certainly meant a currency meltdown in emerging markets. Now, it’s failing to cause as much as a flutter.

Sixteen of 25 developing-nation currencies analyzed by Bloomberg are trading near their highest levels in at least 15 years against Brent crude, the benchmark for more than half of the world’s oil. And all but two of them have a correlation coefficient of less than 0.3 with the commodity, signaling crude-price moves have little impact.

The breakdown of oil’s traditional influence on emerging markets shows that currencies are driven more by the economic outlook in the coronavirus era and are treating the oil slump as an idiosyncratic story. They could rebound once the pandemic subsides and national lock-downs are lifted, even if oil prices are slow to respond.

CountryCurrency/Brent highest since...Correlation coefficient with Brent
RussiaMarch 20090.63
NigeriaApril 2016-0.01
AngolaDecember 2017-0.1
KazakhstanAll-time high0.19
MexicoJanuary 20050.24
ColombiaNovember 20030.51
BrazilMarch 20090.29
IndonesiaApril 20040.02

“EMFX is more in line with sentiment and how equity markets are performing rather than tracking oil,” said Brendan McKenna, a currency strategist at Wells Fargo Securities in New York. “If the virus is contained in the next few months and we get a strong economic recovery, I would expect EMFX to outperform oil prices.”

This resilience may also come as a relief to nations with pegged currencies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates or those closely managing their exchange rates, like Nigeria. Investors aren’t selling emerging-market currencies anywhere near the pace at which oil is plunging and that gives these countries some breathing space.

McKenna expects both oil and emerging-market exchange rates to gain from an economic recovery -- but the latter could rise faster.

While Brent has held up better than West Texas Intermediate, it has still plummeted 68% this year. The 6% loss for currencies pales in comparison.

That’s taken the MSCI Emerging Markets Currency Index, which is heavily weighted with Asian nations that are typically net energy buyers, to the highest level on record going back to 1997 relative to crude prices. Less than 5% of its moves can be explained by swings in Brent, based on 120-day rolling correlation.

Oil Is No Longer the Nemesis of Emerging Markets

Only the ruble and Colombia’s peso have a noticeable relationship with oil. About 40% of the Russian currency’s moves can be explained by the commodity, while 26% of peso’s swings coincide with it. Everywhere else, the relationship is less than 10%.

The flip side is the inability of oil-importing nations, including India and Turkey, to benefit from lower oil prices. The disruption to energy consumption because of the coronavirus means cheaper fuel is of little relevance to consumers at this point. If anything, the rupee and lira have weakened in April, showing a negligible positive correlation with Brent.

The region in focus for investors is the Middle East, home to some of the world’s biggest energy producers with pegged currencies. If the resilience and narrow correlations of floated currencies are any indication, there’s little likelihood of a substantial pressure for oil-price swings on these controlled exchange rates.

There are fundamental reasons for that. Saudi Arabia has foreign reserves that are 63% of its gross domestic product and has a low production-breakeven rate that limits losses.

Pegs in the Gulf Cooperation Council nations will largely hold given aggressive external buffers exceeding $2.5 trillion (foreign reserves plus sovereign-wealth-fund assets), Carla Slim, a Dubai-based economist at Standard Chartered Plc said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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