Bank Negara keeping a close tab on the ringgit

Apart from requiring proper documentation from remitance agents, Bank Negara is also scrutinising companies and individuals making big investments overseas in an effort to prevent outflow of the ringgit for speculative purposes.

At RM3.4713 (S$1.32) to the US dollar yesterday, the ringgit is at its weakest level in about five years.

"Bank Negara is not against companies or individuals looking to make real investments.

However, to ensure that people aren't just selling down the ringgit for speculative purposes, Bank Negara will be interviewing some of these companies that have made recent investments," says one source.

These measures by Bank Negara will certainly have an effect on many Malaysian companies that have made acquisitions overseas in recent times.

A recent big overseas transaction for example, would be Sime Darby Bhd, which is buying over the entire stake in New Britain Palm Oil Ltd (NBPOL) for 7.15 pounds a share or 1.07 billion pounds (RM5.62 billion) cash.

According to Gatehouse Bank, Malaysian funds have investments overseas totalling 4.91billion pounds (RM27 billion). These funds are either the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), the Retirement Fund Inc (KWAP) or Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB),

The EPF has also been actively making overseas investments.

This year, the EPF bought stakes in Arena Unit Trust, which owns three Tesco-anchored retail parks. Last year, it was involved in the London Battersea Power Station investment.

Meanwhile, the ringgit dropped 1.9 per cent this month, making it one of the worst performing currencies in Asia.

Between Nov 28 and Dec 1, the currency weakened by 2.5 per cent, making it the biggest two-day decline in more than 16 years.

At 3.4713 per dollar yesterday, this is the lowest since February 2010.

On Thursday, Bank Negara said in a "stern reminder" that all short-dated transactions requiring the exchange of ringgit for a foreign currency must be backed by underlying documentation.

Not everyone is seeing red over the weakening ringgit.

An economist with AllianceDBS says that with healthy current account surpluses together with steady international reserves, the ringgit should appreciate gradually against the US dollar in the near term.

"We see the ringgit trading at RM3.40 by year-end and RM3.35-RM3.40 by end-2015. Nonetheless, there is downside risk to the ringgit, if the fiscal deficit turns out to be worse than our current expectation," he says.

The selloff in the ringgit was fuelled by the drop in oil prices, after the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries' decision last week to not cut production in order to shore up prices.

This was made worse when Petronas president and group chief executive Tan Sri Shamsul Azhar Abbas said that payments to the federal government in the form of dividends, tax and royalties could fall by 37 per cent from the previous year to about RM43 billion in 2015 if oil prices stay at around US$75 (RM258) per barrel.

Since July, Brent crude has dropped close to 40 per cent from the US$110 level to US$69 as of yesterday.

Malaysia is currently the sole loser among Asia's emerging markets from the decline in crude prices.

Based on AllianceDBS's revised simulation study, if Tapis crude oil prices were to fall by US$10 per barrel from its earlier projection of an average of US$90 per barrel to US$80 per barrel for 2015, the Federal Government's oil revenue is likely to decrease by about RM8 billion.

In the mid-nineties, the ringgit was trading as a free float currency at around RM2.50 to the US dollar, The Asian financial crisis however brought the ringgit crashing to under RM3.80 to the dollar by the end of 1997.

In 1998, the currency fluctuated between RM3.80 and RM4.40 to the dollar.

The Government pegged the ringgit to the US dollar in September 1998 at RM3.80 to the dollar value for some seven years. At the same time, the Ringgit also become non-tradable outside of Malaysia.

On July 21, 2005, Bank Negara announced the end of the peg to the US dollar, following China's announcement of the end of the renminbi peg to the US dollar.

The ringgit was allowed to operate in a managed float against several managed currencies, so that this would enable the ringgit to trade closer to its perceived market value. Bank Negara has however intervened a few times to maintain stabillionity in the trading of the ringgit.

The ringgit's recent high of RM2.939 to the US dollar was on July 7, 2011.

Since then, the ringgit has traded between RM3.10 and RM3.30 to the dollar.