By Claire Milhench
LONDON (Reuters) - The plunge in the Turkish lira has set off a wave of selling across emerging market assets, reviving the spectre of contagion that has been the sector's Achilles heel for decades.
Although the ripple effects may not yet be of the scale of the financial firestorms of 1997-2000 or the global financial crash of 2008-2009, seemingly indiscriminate selling of emerging markets as far afield as South Africa, Russia and Mexico was clear this week as Turkey's crisis deepened.
There were hopes earlier this year that this sort of contagion had dissipated, with little spillover from a crisis in one country, such as Argentina or Brazil, to the wider asset class as whole.
But with the lira diving 13 percent on Friday in its biggest one-day fall since the financial crisis, other currencies such as the South African rand and Brazilian real tumbled in its wake. It was the first real sign of intra-EM contagion since 2013's "taper tantrum", when the markets took fright at the prospect of the U.S. Federal Reserve reducing its economic stimulus.
"It's the usual classic emerging markets story where people wake up, see bad news in one country and start selling everywhere," said Bart Turtelboom, chief executive at APQ Global.
On the face of it, similar market dynamics to prior emerging market blowups are back at work again.
Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, said capital flows had been very large in the run up to the sell off, on a par with levels before the taper tantrum. In addition, late in the cycle, EM exposure builds up rapidly in a few places where good returns can still be had.
As a result, asset managers are now trying to reduce risk where they can, especially in the more liquid markets such as Mexico and South Africa, to cover potential redemptions and limit any downside.
"You need the cash to perhaps plug the hole or the losses in other positions in which you are stuck, so that causes the spillover and triggers a chain reaction," said Cristian Maggio, head of emerging markets strategy at TD Securities.
Marc Ostwald, global strategist and chief economist at ADM Investor Services International Limited, added that the moves had been accentuated by poor liquidity: "The door is very big when you want to go in, and it's a mousehole when you want to go out. The really big contagion effect happens when people have to sell good assets to cover losses on bad assets."
So why now? Market participants say it's partly due to investors waking up to the high levels of dollar borrowing some emerging countries undertook during the easy money years - debt that needs to be serviced.
With the U.S. Federal Reserve tightening and the dollar strengthening, borrowing costs for emerging countries are rising. While Turkey may be the weakest link, it is by no means the only country dealing with an asset/liability mismatch.
Turkey, Argentina and Indonesia also sold off hard in May as investors fretted about rising U.S. yields, but both Argentina and Indonesia took decisive action to contain this by raising interest rates to steady their currencies.
Turkey also raised rates then, but its response this time has been to stand pat, with President Tayyip Erdogan seemingly wedded to unorthodox monetary policy and commanding greater influence over the economy since his re-election in June.
At such a vulnerable moment, the United States imposed sanctions on two of Turkey's ministers - a move that Edward Park, investment director at UK-based Brooks Macdonald, said had acted as a catalyst for the market.
"U.S. sanctions are the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "This is a good example of a country that did relatively little to calm down the sanctions news and little to defend the currency. It's a perfect storm in terms of market reaction."
He pointed out that Turkey had tripled its U.S. dollar liabilities over the last 10 years, taking advantage of cheap money to refinance itself.
"There's been a lot of negative sentiment around Turkey but people are thinking that Turkey is not alone ... and what could be the next country under fire because of its external debt liabilities?" Park said.
Analysts at Goldman Sachs said that on average, EM near-term dollar funding needs were completely covered by reserves, meaning that the likelihood of U.S. dollar debt crises was extremely limited.
Conversely, Turkey's funding needs were more like frontier markets, and in the same ballpark as the needs of Latin American economies in the 1980s and Asia in the 1990s, the bank added.
Higher U.S. sanctions on Turkish steel and aluminium exports announced by U.S. President Donald Trump later on Friday triggered a fresh wave of selling, with EM FX volatility gauges spiking. Russian markets have also felt the heat this week after another surprise sanctions move by Washington.
The average yield spread of emerging market dollar bonds over safe haven U.S. Treasuries on the JPMorgan EMBI global diversified index widened to 353 basis points, a one-month high, while MSCI's benchmark emerging stocks index fell 1.5 percent.
Yet the sell off was not limited to emerging markets: Euro zone bank shares also tumbled on concerns about their exposure to Turkey, after media reports that the European Central Bank was increasingly concerned about some lenders.
Spain's BBVA, Italy's UniCredit and France's BNP Paribas have some of the largest operations in Turkey among the euro zone banks.
Gregan Anderson, macroeconomic strategist at brokerage Bulltick, said exposure to Turkey could impact European banks' bottom lines "and could have a domino effect throughout Europe as people begin to pull out of those banks and into the U.S. In that sense, the Turkey situation can be a contagion (trigger) not only in Europe but across emerging markets."
(Reporting by Claire Milhench; Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker; Graphics by Ritvik Carvalho; Editing by Hugh Lawson)