A decade ago, the worst financial crisis in generations sent shockwaves around the world, forcing many emerging markets and developing economies to tap into hard-won fiscal space to stimulate their economies. Today, much of that fiscal space has been depleted, leaving these economies vulnerable should another economic shock materialize.
“After a long and protracted recovery, economies across the globe are expanding,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank. “But periodic downturns are an inevitable feature of the global economy, and developing countries should take action now to put themselves on a firmer footing.”
Franziska Ohnsorge, Manager in the World Bank’s Development Prospects Group, addressed the issue of countries’ readiness to cope with an economic shock at a recent Policy Research Talk. Drawing on a new database covering 200 countries, and using 28 indicators over 3 decades, she described how emerging market and developing economies’ fiscal space has evolved.
These indicators show that the fiscal positions of many of these economies have deteriorated in multiple dimensions over the past decade. Government debt has grown steadily since 2007, and as of 2017 stands at over 53 percent of GDP on average. Prior to the global financial crisis, that figure was 46 percent.
This growth in debt has been driven by a reversal from fiscal surpluses prior to the crisis to deficits in every year since 2009. In 2017, EMDEs ran a deficit of about 4 percent of GDP, their biggest since the crisis. Three-quarters of EMDEs are currently adding to their stock of debt—and that is in the absence of a major global shock since 2008-09.
Should they be subject to a shock similar to previous episodes of financial stress, nearly all EMDEs would set their government debt on a rising trajectory, at current spending levels. To maintain constant debt levels in the face of a shock, EMDEs would have to make drastic cuts to government spending, equivalent to 8 percent of GDP on average, Ohnsorge said.
Other aspects of EMDE fiscal positions have also slipped. External debt has been creeping up in recent years, and now exceeds 50 percent of GDP on average in EMDEs. At the same time, sovereign debt ratings have been trending steadily downward since 2011, reflecting growing investor wariness. The average maturity of sovereign debt has likewise been heading downwards since 2009, increasing turnover risk.
“If a crisis were to happen today, government debt would be only slightly smaller compared to the run-up to earlier crises, and deficits would be much wider,” said Ohnsorge. “Are EMDEs ready for the next shock? The data suggest not, at least in some dimensions.”