Memories of 1998 Rekindled in Routs From Russia to Venezuela

Emerging markets are ending the year much like how they began it -- in freefall.

From Russia to Venezuela, Thailand to Brazil, stocks, bonds and currencies across the developing world are plunging.

The Russian ruble tumbled past 64 for the first time on record today while Venezuelan bonds sank below 40 cents on the dollar and Thai stocks fell the most in 11 months. Brazil’s corporate debt market is reeling as a graft probe of state oil producer Petroleo Brasileiro SA infects the market.

All of this has something of a familiar feel to it, dating back to 1998, when, just like now, oil was tumbling and driving crude exporters Russia and Venezuela into financial crisis.

While lots has changed in emerging markets since then -- perhaps most importantly, countries have higher foreign reserves and more flexible exchange rates -- the signs of contagion are mounting. Investors withdrew more than $2.5 billion from U.S. exchange-traded funds that buy emerging-market stocks and bonds last week, the biggest outflow since January, when political and financial instability from Argentina to Turkey and the fallout from Federal Reserve tapering policy sent money managers fleeing.

“We’ve shifted into liquidation mode,” Peter Lannigan, an emerging-market strategist at CRT Capital Group LLC, said by telephone from Stamford, Connecticut. “We’re at the point where people are selling the winners and the losers.”

Volatility Index

An index tracking 20 emerging-market currencies fell to the lowest level in more than a decade today, undermined by tumbling oil prices and slowing growth in China. Turkey’s lira fell to an all-time low after police detained journalists suspected of links with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, while Indonesia’s rupiah tumbled to the lowest level since 1998.

The Russian central bank, at an unscheduled meeting, lifted its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent, effective Dec. 16. Policy makers increased borrowing costs to limit the currency’s drop and inflation risks, according to a statement on the monetary authority’s website. The move came after the currency tumbled to a record 64.4455 per dollar.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index, the benchmark equity gauge, fell for a seventh day today, extending its December plunge to 8 percent as the CBOE Emerging Markets ETF Volatility Index jumped to the highest since October. The dollar-denominated RTS Index of Russian stocks tumbled 10 percent today, the most since President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March.

More Pain

Venezuela’s $4 billion of dollar bonds due 2027 sank 3.4 cents to 37.8 cents on the dollar as concern mounts that oil’s collapse will prompt the South American country to default. Crude prices have fallen about 25 percent to the lowest in five years since OPEC decided against cutting production to tackle the glut at a Nov. 27 meeting. Prices are down about 48 percent since mid-June.

In neighboring Brazil, benchmark bonds of oil producer Petrobras, the largest international borrower in the developing world over the past five years, plunged to a record low after it delayed its third-quarter financial results for a second time. The company is investigating new statements from witnesses in what has become Brazil’s largest-ever money laundering and corruption scandal as a rout in stocks and bonds spreads to almost every major Brazilian firm that has business with the state-run company.

Investors could be in for further pain if oil prices continue to slide and the Fed indicates benchmark rates may rise sooner than expected at its meeting this week.

“A tremendous number of investment strategies have been based on a continuation of low interest rates and high commodity prices,” Michael Roche, a strategist at Seaport Group LLC, said by phone from New York. “This disturbance is causing, as we speak, the first of many relocations of global investment portfolios away from weak sectors and economies.”

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