Fitch boost for Malaysia short-lived, ringgit hardest hit in Asia

Fitch boost for Malaysia short-lived, ringgit hardest hit in Asia
PHOTO: AFP

PETALING JAYA - The simmering economic crisis in Greece and weakness in China continued to roil financial markets across the region, with the ringgit being the hardest hit among Asian currencies.

Sentiment on the ringgit was further compounded by rising domestic political risk, lingering concerns about 1Malaysia Development Bhd's massive debt problems and lower oil revenue.

The local unit fell to a 16-year low yesterday at 3.809 against the US dollar - a level last seen before the exchange rate was pegged in 1998.

It was down 8.1 per cent year-to-date and is currently the worst performing currency in Asia.

Independent economist Lee Heng Guie said Greece might be a small economy but the contagious implications on other weaker links in the eurozone could spook investors if Greece were to be forced out of the bloc.

"Recovery in the eurozone is still weak and people are worried that a possible fallout from Greece may impact the region's economy," he said.

Another economist said the depleting international reserves indicated that Bank Negara had carried out some currency stabilising activities.

A source suggested that Bank Negara may have sold more than US$1bil (S$1.35 billion) yesterday to shore up the ringgit, which had dropped to an intra-day low of 3.814 in early trade.

The country's international reserves stood at US$106.38bil as at end-May, slightly higher than US$105.95bil at end-April.

"Our current account is still in surplus mode, so a twin deficit is unlikely." the economist said, adding that the reserves level should be sustainable at above US$100bil.

"Bonds and the Malaysia Government Securities (MGS) have continued to thrive. Foreigners still believe in the country's long-term outlook, as they remain the biggest bondholders," she said.

Foreign investors had been increasing their holding of MGS up until the end of May this year, according to a recent estimate by Standard Chartered Global Research.

As at end-May, foreign ownership of MGS stood at 47 per cent, or US$43bil of the total outstanding of US$92bil.

But May marked a significant turning point, both for the ringgit and the stock market.

MIDF Research, in a recent note, observed that foreign investors had been net sellers of local equities in the past two months. It said, June was the worst month for Bursa Malaysia since 2014, as foreign outflows totalled more than RM3bil.

This increased the cumulative net foreign outflow for the year to RM9bil, significantly higher than the RM6.9bil that had left the market in the whole of 2014.

"The Greece NO vote means uncertainties ahead and there will likely be a global sell-off in equities in the immediate term," MIDF Research said.

"However, the Greece outcome should have been expected and priced in," it added.

But the worst, however, may not yet be over for the ringgit.

"Fitch's revision of Malaysia's outlook seemed to be short-lived because of the negative sentiments. Investors don't like uncertainties," one analyst said.

A foreign report last Friday had alleged that there was investigative evidence of money from state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd being channelled to what was believed to be Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's personal accounts. Najib has denied the allegations and is looking at legal options against the publisher.

Meanwhile, the economy is still absorbing the impact of the goods and services tax while the country's biggest trade partner, China, shows signs of slowing down.

"We expect a worse third quarter, as we foresee weaker economic numbers," the analyst said.

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