Fears of Asian crisis may be overblown

Fears of Asian crisis may be overblown

The "taper terror" returned to haunt Asian markets last week, spurring investors to dump regional shares and currencies on growing dread that the United States central bank may reduce its gigantic stimulus programme next month.

They fear that a pullback of US quantitative easing (QE) will mean less liquidity going into Asian assets while also raising US interest rates and the greenback - an outcome that will make Asia less attractive as an investment destination.

But a few observers are entertaining an even scarier vision: the spectre of a repeat of the Asian financial crisis.

They see eerie echoes of the 1990s. Across Asia, economies have been borrowing heavily to fuel spending, sparking a run-up in asset prices, inflation and credit intensity - the amount of debt needed to generate each unit of economic expansion.And just as it did in 1997, the party may now be coming to an abrupt end.

Growth in Asia's trade-dependent economies has slowed and once-surging capital inflows are reversing direction, depressing currency values in the region and making it difficult for nations to balance their external accounts. Interest rates, which were slashed to near zero in developed countries to spur growth, are also rising again, which means firms and households rolling over their debt will do so at higher cost.

Some economists portend the tapering of QE will be the trigger that exposes deeper economic weaknesses, by removing cheap foreign funding from Asia just when it is most reliant on it. This could mean the region is headed for more serious and lasting trouble than a one-off panic in the markets, they warn.

Quaking over QE

Investors have made it clear which Asian economies they are most concerned about.

India's rupee has fallen almost 20 per cent against the greenback this year and hit new all-time lows, although it regained some ground late last week. Indonesia's rupiah has lost about 12 per cent, while the Malaysian ringgit is down about 8 per cent and the Thai baht has shed 5 per cent. All reached their lowest levels against the US dollar since 2009 or 2010 last week.

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