What Capital Flight Is Telling Us About Emerging Markets

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by: William Gamble

At first, hunters rarely actually spot their quarry. They usually track them following various other signs, like disturbed underbrush or the animal’s spoor. To determine the health and safety of any given market investors have literally hundreds of economic indicators. Part of the problem with these statistics is that they are usually compiled by some branch of the government. Their accuracy varies widely from country to country. Then interpreting these statistics can be a challenge. Different economists and analysts can read totally divergent meanings into the same numbers.

Perhaps a better alternative would be to consult local investors. Wealthy people from any given country usually have an excellent pulse on the local economy. Either they actually run businesses or they have connections. In either case, they have specific relevant information that will never be available to foreign investors. Much of this information will never be known, because the locals have absolutely no wish to make their activities known to the authorities. But they do leave tracks.

One of the most interesting indications has to do with capital flight. If the locals are getting out, it is probably not a good idea for foreigners to get in. Capital flight, like bad debts, is also one of the principal indications of the end of a credit bubble.

Sometimes the signs of capital flight are quite predictable and obvious. With the default of Greek sovereign debt and its membership in the euro probably only a matter of time, it is hardly a surprise that money is flowing out of that country to find safer havens. According to the most recent statistics, Greek banks have seen deposit out flows of about €65 billion, or about one third of the total, over the past two years.

Nor would it be a surprise that certain unstable Latin American countries are hemorrhaging money. In Argentina capital flight is estimated to be at about $3 billion in recent months. This has led the government to institute ever more stringent controls. Citizens must now justify every purchase of foreign currency.

Hugo Chavez’s policies in Venezuela have nationalized hundreds of companies, which has slashed non-oil exports. The capital flight is estimated at $28 billion a month. The cost of this capital flight together with $11 billion in debt service and $100 billion worth of imports has made it difficult for Venezuela to service its debts unless oil remains high.

One would think that with the price of oil relatively high that Russia, a BRIC country, might be a good place to invest. Not so, according to the flight capital statistics. Capital flight in 2011 totaled $84 billion, two and a half times the money that left in 2010. Even with the high price of oil, the ruble has weakened by 5%. According to one of the local billionaires, Mikhail Fridman, Russia’s poor investment climate and lack of protection of investor rights has made the developed world, specifically the US, a much better place to invest.

Brazil until recently was considered a good place to invest money, but things have changed. Brazilians and other Latin America nationals have helped put a floor under the high end condo market in Miami. The price per square foot bottomed at $200 and thanks to flight capital it has risen to $300. The sellers in Miami are particularly pleased to see the foreign buyers, because 85% of the Brazilians pay in cash.

Earlier this week markets improved substantially because of what was considered positive numbers coming out of China. The Chinese GDP grew at 8.9%, which was widely interpreted as evidence that China was slowing gradually and that the Chinese authorities had engineered a soft landing for their booming economy. The gaming tables of Macau tell a different story.

Many wealthy Chinese cannot directly move money out of the country or change their yuan into other currency, so they use other methods. The success of the former Portuguese colony of Macau is built not on the love of gambling, but upon the flood of nervous money leaving China. Macau is already four times bigger than its closest competitor, Las Vegas. More than 13.2 million mainlanders visited Macau in the first ten months of 2011. Awaiting them were many different ways to launder money, according to a local professor, “more than we can think of”.

It is not only gambling. In November Chinese purchases of gold increased by 20%. Analysts suggested the increase was due to the slight fall in price or that jewelry consumption had risen in expectation of gifts for the New Year celebrations. But the real explanation might have been protection from a failing economy.

In each of these markets it is important to consider the economic indicators, but the best one might simply to see how the locals vote with their feet.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.