If Uncel Sam is well, why is Asia sick

PHOTO: If Uncel Sam is well, why is Asia sick

SINGAPORE - There's that financial adage - if the US sneezes, Asia catches a cold.

But Uncle Sam is recovering and Europe is doing much better, thank you.

Then why are Asian currencies and stock markets down?

And how will Singapore be impacted?

In a perverse way, bad news is now good.

And good news, bad.

When the US Federal Reserve, on the back of a recovering economy, said it will cut back on the printing of money - it had been printing trillions of US dollars every month and much of it flowed to Asia - stock markets around the world plunged in value.

Now the Federal Reserve qualified it by saying it was watching US job figures before deciding on tapering.

So when fewer jobs were recently created than had been anticipated, that's bad news, right?

Well no, stock markets climbed.

Why? Simply put - a recovering US economy means the post-Lehman Brothers and easy credit party is coming to an end.

"Yes, the lights are coming on and people don't like the new dawn. The supply of easy money is ending and some people have become addicted to partying with easy money," Mr Song Seng Wun, regional economist at CIMB-GK Research, told The New Paper.

The lights are also showing up the flaws, with stock markets and currencies in the region falling.

"People are worried the fundamentals may not have been all that sound and the economies in the region weren't as robust as first thought," added Mr Song.

Take Jakarta, which until about a month ago still had a swagger.


On the crowded streets in Senayan, Lamborghinis and BMWs crowded out the more common Toyota Kijangs and ojek riders (motorcycle taxis).

Now there's a little more feet dragging and furrowed brows.

And while the luxury marquees still try to hit 50kmh along Glodok - Jakarta's Chinatown - the drivers are now more worried about that monthly instalment.

"Certainly people are worried that the new apartments they bought will fall in value while their monthly payment goes up because of higher interest rates. They are also worried if a slowdown leads to job losses," said Mr Aries W, a 40-year-old university lecturer living in Jakarta.

Then there's Thailand, which has seen a pregnant pause in growth after two quarters of painful contractions.

This week, Thais woke up to a recession.

Things are not much better in India either, with the rupee and stock market going down faster than a glass of chilled lassi.

"There is a lot of resemblance to prior crises like 1997-98. We have had two countries going down, India and Indonesia, and now you have got to start thinking about the third and fourth countries," Mr Pradeep Mohinani, a Nomura credit analyst in Hong Kong, told Malaysian Insider.

He added: "The likely candidates would be those with high fiscal deficits, slowing economies and high foreign ownership of government bonds. Thailand and Malaysia tick most of the boxes in that regard."

In 1997, a series of financial events, including steep falls in the value of local currencies, turned the proud Tigers of South-east Asia, which had borrowed heavily in US dollars to fund mega projects, into alley cats scrounging for foreign investment.

It was dubbed the Asian financial crisis.

"But it won't be the Asian financial crisis again because the regional governments saw it coming this time," said Mr Song.

He added: "Furthermore, in spite of the post-2008 partying, there was no bingeing in borrowing large sums in short-term loans."

Post-global financial crisis in 2008, Asia reaped the benefits with trillions of dollars leaving the US and Europe looking for high returns.

A lot of it landed in South-east Asia.

But four years of expansion are now being reduced into a few months of contractions.

Now, investors want to return the money to the US and Europe.

So where does that leave Singapore?

"Certainly the policymakers here saw the signs and introduced measures, including those for the property market. Regional governments are also ready to support each other," said Mr Song.

While regional currencies went south, the Sing dollar climbed 1 per cent against the US dollar.

Yes, the party is over.

Now there's the hangover to deal with.

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