Malaysian Central Bank raises defence; weak currency


  Bank Negara_Defence
 
Malaysia banks told to set minimum CA ratio at 1.2% of total loans

PETALING JAYA: Banks have been told to have a minimum collective assessment (CA) ratio of 1.2% by the end of next year, sending a strong signal to the industry to improve its standards of prudence.

According to a circular from Bank Negara to financial institutions early last week, all banks are required to set aside a minimum of 1.2% of total loans effective Dec 31, 2015.

The requirement, effectively, will put a stop to the present situation where banks are left to set aside their CA ratio based on their own risk assessment of their asset profile.

“Most banks have maintained a CA ratio of lower than 1.2% because there is no minimum set by Bank Negara. This circular effectively sets the standard for a minimum requirement,” said a banker.

The CA ratio was previously known as the general provisions that all banks were required to adopt. The general provisions requirement was a minimum of 1.5% of total loans, a ratio set by the central bank.

However, after the introduction of the new accounting standards three years ago, the general provisions requirement was replaced with a CA ratio, with banks free to set their own ratio.

The central bank no longer set the minimum requirement for banks to comply with in regards to the provisions.

According to a research report by CIMB, banks that had a CA ratio of less than 1.2% as of September last year were Malayan Banking Bhd, Public Bank Bhd, Affin Bank Bhd and Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd.

Bankers, when contacted, were divided on the impact that the requirement would have on their bottom lines.

According to one banker, the move to comply with the ruling will not impact profitability because the additional amount required to be set aside can be transferred from retained earnings.

“Funds out of retained earnings will not impact the profit and loss (P&L) account of banks. It’s not a P&L item,” he said.

However, it would affect the dividend payout ability of banks, added the banker.

Another banker said the financial institution was seeking clarification from Bank Negara on whether to set aside the provisions from its profits.

“If that were the case, then it would impact profitability,” said the banker.

OCBC Bank (M) Bhd country chief risk officer Choo Yee Kwan said the background to the new requirement was that Bank Negara wanted to ensure that impairment provisions could keep pace with strong credit growth.

“In addition, the regulator would like to promote consistency in practices in ensuring adequate rigour and data quality in arriving at the appropriate level of collective impairment and the factors that are considered by banking institutions.

“Adequate impairment provisions serve as necessary buffers against potential credit losses; hence, they can reduce the likelihood of systemic risk for the banking sector,” he said in an e-mail response to StarBiz.

He said the sector might witness an increase in the overall level of impairment provisions at the industry level.

“Nevertheless, this should be seen positively, as the higher credit buffers would now render the sector stronger,” he noted.

CIMB Research in a report stated that the proposed new guideline could have a negative impact on banks based on its theoretical analysis.

It pointed out that several banks would have to increase their CA provisions under the new ruling and this would lead to a rise in the banks’ overall credit costs.

“Those which do not meet the requirements would have to increase their CA (and ultimately credit cost) in 2014-2015, even if their asset quality is improving. For banks with a CA ratio of above 1.2%, the new ruling would limit the room for them to further reduce their CA ratios,” CIMB Research explained.

According to CIMB Research’s estimates, banks’ net profits could be lowered by around 0.5% (for Hong Leong Bank Bhd) to 11% (for Public Bank) in 2014 to 2015 if a minimum requirement of 1.2% for the CA ratio were implemented.

Another analyst, however, is of the view that the new requirement from Bank Negara would have a negligible impact on the operations and earnings of banks.

“We think it is not a major concern for most banks because, firstly, the grace period for the implementation of the new guideline is long. Secondly, the minimum ratio of 1.2% will not comprise of only the CA component alone, but is also a combination of the CA and the statutory or regulatory reserve.

“In general, we see the new guideline as a measure to standardise the way banks gauged their capital buffers.
“The bottom line is, we think the new guideline will only serve to further strengthen banks’ capital buffers,” the analyst added.

By Cecilia Kok and Daljit Dhesi StarBiz, Asia News Network

Silver lining in weak currency

Weaker currencies are a boon for Malaysia and Indonesia, helping to tip the balance of trade back in their favour, as exporters benefit from rising demand for goods and commodities from advanced economies, coupled with steady growth in China.The favourable trade surplus, economists said, would ease the pressure on these emerging countries’ deteriorating external accounts, which is a major sore point for foreign investors.

They added that rising exports would provide the much-needed tailwind for Asian economies to sustain growth even as domestic demand moderated.

Malaysia on Friday reported a 2.4% growth in exports in 2013, backed by a 14.4% jump in December that exceeded the market’s expectation by a wide margin.

“We still maintain our long-term view of impending growth momentum in the coming quarters,” Alliance Research economists Manokaran Mottain and Khairul Anwar Md Nor said in a report.

They predicted exports in 2014 to grow at a faster pace of 5%, backed by steady but improving export demand from advanced economies.

While imports grew at a faster pace than exports in 2013, Malaysia continued to enjoy a strong trade surplus.

The favourable trade surplus combined with an anticipated smaller services deficit and transfer outflows would translate into a larger current account surplus of RM16.7bil or 6.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the last quarter of 2013.

“The cumulative current account surplus is estimated to reach RM37.8bil or 3.9% of GDP in 2013, helping to assuage fears of a current account deficit,’’ CIMB Research economist Lee Heng Guie said.

This, he said, was positive for the ringgit and the capital market.

The ringgit, along with other emerging Asian currencies, have been under pressure since June last year after the US Federal Reserve began talking and later started to reduce its quantitative easing (QE).

The US Fed first pared its monthly bond purchases programme from the original US$85 billion a month to $75 billion in January. This was cut further by $10 billion starting from February.

“Capital outflows from emerging markets are likely to continue in the months ahead as the Federal Reserve winds down its QE3 programme,” said Macquarie Bank Ltd’s Singapore-based head of strategy for fixed income and currencies Nizam Idris.

Fears about the US Fed tapering down the supply of cheap money to the market first surfaced in May last year and it triggered a huge sell-off on emerging market assets.

Countries such as Indonesia and India had seen their currencies depreciate the most in 2013, Both economies had wide current account deficits.

Last year, the Indian rupee plummeted the most in two decades, while rupiah depreciated by about 20% against the US dollar over the past 12 months.

Not helping emerging market currencies is the recovery in advanced economies, such as a rebound in economic growth in the US which rose by 3.2% in the fourth quarter of last year.

But if economic recovery in the US and eurozone were to stay on course, so would demand for cheaper emerging market exports. This, in turn, would help shrink the huge current account deficits that had hobbled countries such as Indonesia, India and Turkey.

For many emerging economies, 2014 had gotten off to a grim start.

Concern over the Chinese economy’s marked slowdown and the Argentine peso’s steep slide in January has brought upon renewed pressure on the currency market.

But the current market volatility does not portend weaker growth.

CIMB Research in Indonesia observed that the strains in the financial markets did not translate into a significant slowdown in the economy as the country’s real GDP growth accelerated to 5.7% in the last quarter of 2013.

Its exports surged in December, while imports slowed on the weaker rupiah. This helped to widen its trade surplus to $1.52 billion, the largest since November 2011.

The favourable trade numbers narrowed its current account deficit of $4.06 billion.

CIMB Research expects growth in Indonesia “to trough” in the first half of 2014 as the lagged effect of the rupiah depreciation and Bank Indonesia’s aggressive policy-tightening cycle in June-November 2013 works through the economy.

“Pre-election bounce in consumption should offset the weakness, allowing Indonesia to post 5.6% GDP growth in 2014,’’ it said.

Malaysia, too, is on track for sustained growth. CIMB Research projected GDP growth in the third quarter would probably expand by 5.3%, taking the full year growth rate to 4.7% for 2013. – The Star/ANN

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Capital controls: From heresy to orthodoxy


THINK ASIAN By ANDREW SHENG

Principles for formulating capital control policies must take local conditions into account.

ON Sept 1, 2011, it would be 13 years to the day when Malaysia first introduced capital controls to stem the effects of the Asian financial crisis on the domestic economy. In 1998, it was heresy to introduce capital controls on capital flows, since it was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) orthodoxy to liberalise the capital account.

From the perspective of history, one tends to forget that in 1945, when the IMF was first established, the consensus opinion among bankers and academics alike was for hot money to be controlled. Indeed, the intellectual father of the IMF, John Maynard Keynes, remarked that “what used to be heresy is now endorsed as orthodoxy.”

In the old days, courtesy to living persons and the statute of limitations would allow history to be written only after 60 years when official archives are opened to the public.

Today, we live in an age of unfettered information, when oral and documented history can be published rapidly, from authorised biographies issued shortly after a leader leaves office to unauthorised leakages from Wikileaks.

The publication of a new book by Datuk Wong Sulong, former group chief editor of The Star, called Notes to the Prime Minister: the Untold Story of How Malaysia Beat the Currency Speculators, only two months after the IMF announced in April 2011 new thinking on capital inflows, is a remarkable achievement.

Sixty-six years after the IMF was formed, capital controls have moved full circle from orthodoxy to heresy and back again to (qualified) orthodoxy.

The book comprises 45 Notes written by Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, between Oct 3, 1997 and Aug 21, 1998 to then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In short, they were the key briefs that helped Dr Mahathir make up his mind on the key economic policies to help combat the Asian financial crisis.

Book offers deep insights

For both historians and practicing policymakers, this new book offers deep insights into the serendipity and the practice of successful policy decision-making. There is an element of serendipity, because Dr Mahathir recalled that he spotted Nor Mohamed walking down a street in Kuala Lumpur just before he left for Buenos Aires in September 1997 via Hong Kong, where he attended the World Bank Annual Meetings and clashed publicly with George Soros on currency trading.

On Sept 29, 1997, he summoned Nor Mohamed to meet him in Buenos Aires, because he needed someone who understood currency trading. It is a tribute to a politician trained as a doctor that he was willing to spend repeated sessions with an experienced currency trader to understand the intricacies of modern financial markets.

Reading the 45 Notes in historical sequence, one gets a far better appreciation of how the decision to impose capital controls was arrived at. The Notes not only have historical value, but also current-day applicability, as they explain not only offshore currency, the psychology of fear and greed that drive markets, but also market manipulation in thinly traded emerging market currencies.

The major problem of the proponents of the Washington Consensus in 1997 was that most of them were macro-economists who had little understanding or experience of how the markets actually worked. Free markets became a dogma and objective in their own right, rather than the means to an end for better livelihood for all.

The Notes also revealed that in complex decisions under uncertainty, it was vital to understand clearly the key parameters for action. Note 7 clearly pointed out that Malaysia was different from other countries under currency attack because it did not have large short-term external debt. Note 11, dated Oct 21, 1997, spelt out the factors that determined exchange rates, with a particularly illuminating explanation of market manipulation.

Market manipulation was seen as due to concerted effort by hedge funds, using large gearing and available tools and then triggering the element of fear among the long-term investors who have legitimate currency risk.

In other words, if the wolves can trigger the herd to move, then the fundamentals can move. The perception of fear changes the whole game.

Effect of CLOB

Note 39 dated July 9, 1998 is an important study of the effect on Malaysia of the central limit order book (CLOB) for trading of Malaysian shares in Singapore. The Note identified that the CLOB was a convenient way for capital outflows.

Hence, one of the most effective ways for exchange control was to impose the condition that Malaysian shares could only be traded on a Malaysian exchange, which came on Aug 31, 1998, with exchange controls imposed on the following day.

In Dr Mahathir’s words, “during the financial crisis, we faced two parallel situations; the ringgit was falling rapidly and Malaysian shares were also falling rapidly. So we had to put an end to both.”
50th Mederka Malaysian National Day celebratio...Image via Wikipedia
The IMF has come out with six key principles for formulating capital control policies.

The first is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” policy mix. The second is that capital controls should fit long-term structural reforms. Third, capital controls are only one tool and not a substitute for the right macro policies. Fourth, capital controls can be used on a case-by-case basis, in appropriate circumstances. Fifth, the medicine should treat the ailment, and finally, the policy must consider its effect on other market participants.

It is hard to argue against these common sense “motherhood” principles. The trick in real life policy-making is how to apply them to local conditions.

On of the features of the current Chinese capital controls is that China also has a large amount of Chinese shares listed outside capital controls, such as Chinese shares listed in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York.

This is a book that is a must read for all emerging market policymakers interested in liberalising their capital accounts and for IMF experts to ponder emerging market experience.

I recommend that this new book be translated into Chinese, so that Chinese policymakers interested in internationalising the renminbi can look at the Malaysian experience.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is author of the book, From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.

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The untold story of Malaysia foreign exchange controls

Stronger Malaysian ringgit seen


Stronger ringgit seen

BY DALJIT DHESI daljit@thestar.com.my

Economists expect the ringgit to strengthen further against the US dollar

PETALING JAYA: Economists expect the ringgit to further strengthen against the greenback and attract extensive capital inflow into the region. It will also lead to possible further hikes in statutory reserve requirement (SRR) to stem excess liquidity if the global financial volatility worsens following the US credit rating downgrade.

Standard and Poor’s (S&P’s) had last Friday downgraded the world’s largest economy a notch lower to AA+ from a triple A rating since the credit rating was issued to the US in 1917.

MIDF Research chief economist Anthony Dass said he expected the ringgit to strengthen against the US dollar at an average 2.97 for the year supported by a combination of healthy economic fundamentals and strong inflow of liquidity.

Stronger ringgit: Dass expects the ringgit to trade at an average 2.97 to the greenback for the year.

He added that the stronger ringgit against the US dollar would help cushion some level of imported inflation, which would give some breathing space for Bank Negara on further raising the overnight policy rate (OPR), which now stood at 3%.

“We have now placed a 30% odd for the OPR to stay at 3% for the rest of the year and expect the central bank to raise it by another 25 basis points (bps) in the second half of this year,” Dass said.

Much depends on the direction of the ringgit, the global commodity and food prices, liquidity and whether there will be further relaxation of subsidies.

Underpinned by healthy economic fundamentals and benefiting from the regional net inflow of funds, liquidity inflow into Malaysia has been strong, forcing the central bank to raise the SRR by 300 bps to 4% between April-June 2011. SRR are non-interest deposits kept at the central bank to mop up excess liquidity in the financial system.

With lingering uncertainties on the global front, Dass said he expected Malaysia, like other Asian ex-Japan economies, to continue to see inflow of funds. While this would strengthen the ringgit, he said ample liquidity would add pressure on inflation, adding that he was not ruling out the possibility of further hikes in SRR by another 50 bps to 100 bps should the inflow of liquidity pose a problem.

RAM Holdings economist Jason Fong, in response to a query from Starbiz, said if the financial volatility in the US turned out to be very significant and persistent, the impact on its external markets, including Malaysia, could be substantial.

One of the worst case scenarios would entail extensive capital flight from US-centric assets, he said. In this scenario, he added that there would be considerable decline in the value of the US dollar, causing an appreciation of US-denominated assets, particularly commodities.

The US financial volatility might also cause investors to put their money into safe haven assets such as precious metals, like gold, Fong noted.

Furthermore, he said if there were further US debt rating downgrade within the next two years as pointed out by S&P, then banks (depending on its portfolio weightings in US Treasuries) might slow down lending activities to meet international banking guidelines and this could slow domestic lending and cause consumption and investment to decline.

Fong said a larger-than-usual capital inflow would likely put upward pressure on the ringgit, causing Malaysia’s exports to be more uncompetitive.

He said the rating agency maintained its economic growth forecast of 5.6% for Malaysia this year but acknowledged that the downside risk to growth had risen in the last few months.

This included a prolonged US slowdown coupled with a deteriorating external economic environment, he noted.

AmResearch Sdn Bhd director of economic research Manokaran Mottain reckons that the impact on Malaysia from the US credit rating downgrade will be minimal as the local economy is more domestic-oriented.

Countries more exposed to US Treasuries, including Japan and China, would face the brunt in the near term. China would be pressured to ease the grip on a weaker yuan policy, he added.

For Malaysia, the biggest impact will be in the currency market, with the ringgit rallying again towards RM2.93 per dollar again. The ringgit was traded at RM3.019 to a US$1 yesterday.

In the medium term, a possible quantitative easing (QE3) in the US would lead to the appreciation of the regional currencies, including the ringgit – which is expected to rally towards RM2.90 per dollar before settling between the RM2.80-RM2.90 range for this year.

Manokaran, who is maintaining the country’s gross domestic product forecast at 5% this year, said the Government had trimmed its exposure to the G3 and plans to boost domestic demand. Apart from the US, the G3 also include Japan and the European Union.

European choice: Greek bailout Mark II – it’s a default !


WHAT ARE WE TO DO By TAN SRI LIN SEE-YAN

The European debt crisis has evolved rather quickly since my last column, “Greece is Bankrupt” (July 2). The European leadership was clearly in denial. The crisis has lurched from one “scare” to another. First, it was Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal; and then back to Greece. On each occasion, European politicians muddled through, dithering to buy time with half-baked solutions: more “kicking the can down the road.” By last week, predictably, the crisis came home to roost. Financial markets in desperation turned on Italy, the euro-zone’s third largest economy, with the biggest sovereign debt market in Europe. It has 1.9 trillion euros of sovereign debt outstanding (120% of its GDP), three times as much as Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined.

Greece austerity vote: Q & A Over the next two weeks the EU must come up with a second Greek bailout which could be as high as £107billion on top of the £98billion in rescue loans agreed for Greece in May

The situation has become just too serious, if contagion was allowed to fully play out. It was a reality check; a time to act as it threatened both European integration and the global recovery. So, on July 21, an emergency summit of European leaders of the 17-nation euro-currency area agreed to a second Greek bailout (Mark II), comprising two key elements: (i) the debt exchange (holders of 135 billion euros in Greek debt maturing up to 2020 will voluntarily accept new bonds of up to 15 to 30 years); and (ii) new loans of 109 billion euros (through its bailout fund and the IMF). Overall, Greek debt would fall by 26 billion euros from its total outstanding of 350 billion euros. No big deal really.

Contagion: Italy and Spain

By mid-July, the Greek debt drama had become a full-blown euro-zone crisis. Policy makers’ efforts to insulate other countries from a Greek default, notably Italy and Spain, have failed. Markets panicked because of disenchantment over sloppy European policy making. For the first time, I think, investors became aware of the chains of contagion and are only now beginning to really think about them.

The situation in Italy is serious. At US$262bil, total sovereign claims by international banks on Italy exceeded their combined sovereign exposures to Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, which totalled US$226bil. European banks account for 90% of international banks’ exposure to Italy and 84% of sovereign exposure, with French & German banks being the most exposed. Italy & Spain have together 6.3 trillion euros of public and private debt between them. Reflecting growing market unease, the yield on Italy’s 10-year government bonds had risen to 5.6% on July 20, and Spain’s, to 6%, against 2.76% on German comparable bunds, the widest spread ever in the euro era.

Italy and Spain face different challenges. Spain has a high budget deficit (9.2% of GDP in 2010, down from 11.1% in 2009) the target being to take it down to 6% in 2011 which assumes high implementation risks. Its debt to GDP ratio (at 64% in 2011) is lower than the average for the eurozone. The economy is only gradually recovering, led by exports. But Spain suffers from chronic unemployment (21%, with youth unemployment at 45%), weak productivity growth and a dysfunctional labour market.

It must also restructure its savings banks. Spain needs to continue with reforms; efforts to repair its economy are far from complete and risks remain considerable. Italy has a low budget deficit (4.6% of GDP) and hasn’t had to prop-up its banks. But its economy has barely expanded in a decade, and its debt to GDP ratio of 119% in 2010 was second only to Greece. Italy suffers from sluggish growth, weak productivity and falling competitiveness. Its weaknesses reflect labour market rigidities and low efficiency. The main downside risk comes from turmoil in the eurozone periphery.

Another decade of stagnation also poses a major risk. But both Spain and Italy are not insolvent unlike Greece. The economies are not growing and need to be more competitive. The average maturity of their debt is a reasonable six to seven years. But the psychological damage already done to Europe’s bond market cannot be readily undone.

The deal: Europeanisation of Greek debt

The new bailout deal soughts to ring-fence Greece by declaring “Greece is in a uniquely grave situation in the eurozone. This is the reason why it requires an exceptional solution,” implying it’s not to be repeated. Most don’t believe it. But to its credit, the new deal cuts new ground in addition to bringing-in much needed extra cash – 109 billion euros, plus a contribution by private bondholders of up to 50 billion euros by mid-2014. For the first time, the new framework included solvent counterparties and adequate collateral. For investors, there is nothing like having Europe as the new counterparty instead of Greece. This europeanisation of the Greek debt lends some credibility to the programme. Other new features include: (i) reduction in interest rates to about 3.5% (4.5% to 5.8% now) and extension of maturities to 15 years (from 7 years), to be also offered to Ireland and Portugal; (ii) the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), its rescue vehicle, will be allowed to buy bonds in the secondary market, extend precautionary credit lines before States are shut-out of credit markets, and lend to help recapitalise banks; and (iii) buy collateral for use in the bond exchange, where investors are given four options to accept new bonds carrying differing risk profiles, worth less than their original holdings.

The IIF (Institute of International Finance), the industry trade group that negotiated for the banks, insurance funds and other investors, had estimated that one-half of the 135 billion euros to be exchanged will be for new bonds at 20% discount, giving a savings of 13.5 billion euros off the Greek debt load. Of the 109 billion euros from the new bailout (together with the IMF), 35 billion euros will be used to buy collateral to serve as insurance against the new bonds in exchange, while 20 billion euros will go to buy Greek debt at a discount in the secondary market and then retiring it, giving another savings of 12.6 billion euros on the Greek debt stock.

Impact of default

Once again, the evolving crisis was a step ahead of the politicians. There are fears that Italy and Spain could trip into double-dip recession as global growth falters, threatening the debt dynamics of both countries. This time the IMF weighed in with serious talk of contagion with widespread knock-on effects worldwide. Fear finally struck, forcing Germany and France to act, this time more seriously. The first reaction came from the credit rating agencies. Moody’s downgraded Greece’s rating three notches deeper into junk territory: to Ca, its second-lowest (from Caa1), short of a straight default. Similarly, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s have cut Greece’s rating to CCC.

They have since downgraded it further. They are all expected to state Greece is in default when it begins to exchange its bonds in August for new, long-dated debt (up to 30 years) at a loss to investors (estimated at 21% of their bond holdings). The rating agencies would likely consider this debt exchange a “credit event”, but only for a limited period, I think. Greece’s financial outlook thereafter will depend on whether the country would likely recover or default again. History is unkind: sovereigns that default often falters again.

What is also clear now is the new bailout would not do much to reduce Greece’s huge stock of sovereign debt. At best, the fall in its debt stock will represent 12% of Greece’s GDP. Over the medium term, Greece continues to face solvency challenges. Its stock of debt will still be well in excess of 130% of GDP and will face significant implementation risks to financial and economic reform. No doubt the latest bailout benefitted the entire eurozone by containing near-term contagion risks, which otherwise would engulf Europe. It did manage to provide for the time being, some confidence to investors in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy that it’s not going to be a downward spiral. But the latest wave of post-bailout warnings have reignited concerns of contagion risks and revived investor caution.

Still, the bailout doesn’t address the very core fiscal problems across the eurozone. This is not a comprehensive solution. It shifted additional risks towards contributing members with stronger finances and their taxpayers as well as private investors, and reduces incentives for governments to keep their fiscal affairs under strict check. This worries the Germans as it weakens the foundation of currency union based on fiscal self-discipline. Moreover, the EFSF now given more authority to intervene pre-emptively before a state gets bankrupt, didn’t get more funds.

German backlash appears to be also growing. While the market appears to be moving beyond solvency to looking at potential threat to the eurozone as a whole, the elements needed to fight systemic failure are not present. At best, the deal reflected a courageous effort but fell short of addressing underlying issues, leading to fears that Greece-like crisis situations could still flare-up, spreading this time deep into the eurozone’s core.

Growing pains

The excitement of the bailout blanked out an even bigger challenge that could further destabilise the eurozone sluggish growth. The July Markit Purchasing Managers Index came in at 50.8, the lowest since August 2009 and close enough to the 50 mark that divides expansion from contraction. And, way below the consensus forecast. Both manufacturing and services slackened. Germany and France expanded at the slowest pace in two years in the face of a eurozone that’s displaying signs it is already contracting. Looking ahead, earlier expectations of a 2H’11 pick-up now remains doubtful.Lower GDP growth will require fiscal stimulus to fix, at a time of growing fiscal consolidation which threatens a downward spiral. At this time, the eurozone needs policies to restart growth, especially around the periphery. Without growth, economic reform and budget restraints only exacerbate political backlash and social tensions. This makes it near impossible to restore debt sustainability. Germany may have to delay its austerity programme without becoming a fiscal drag. This trade-off between growth and austerity is real.

IMF studies show that cutting a country’s budget deficit by 3% points of GDP would reduce real output growth by two percentage points and raise the unemployment rate by one percentage point. History suggests growth and austerity just do not mix. In practical terms, it is harder for politicians to stimulate growth than cut debt.

Reform takes time to yield results. And, markets are fickle. In the event the market switches focus from high-debt to low-growth economies, a crisis can easily evolve to enter a new phase one that could help businesses invest and employ rather than a pre-mature swing of the fiscal axe. Timing is critical. It now appears timely for the United States and Europe to shift priorities. They can’t just wait forever to rein in their debts. Sure, they need credible plans over the medium term for deficit reduction. More austerity now won’t get growth going. The surest way to build confidence is to get recovery onto a sustainable path only growth can do that. Without it, the risk of a double-dip recession increases. Latest warnings from the financial markets in Europe and Wall Street send the same message: get your acts together and grow. This needs statesmanship. The status quo is just not good enough anymore.

Former banker Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British chartered scientist who now spends time writing, teaching and promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email: starbizweek@thestar.com.my.

A choice for Americans: Spend more Borrow more? Spend less Tax more?


Debt crisis: America faces a decision that will affect us all

The financial crisis will force the Obama administration to make a choice that will define its future – and ours.

Wall Street blues: America's problem is political, not economic - Debt crisis: America faces a decision that will affect us all

Wall Street blues: America’s problem is political, not economic Photo: ALAMY By Jeremy Warner

To understand the origins of today’s stand-off between Republicans and Democrats over the US debt crisis, it is necessary to revisit an event which took place in Boston Harbour nearly 238 years ago. On December 16, 1773, a group of Massachusetts colonists boarded ships belonging to the East India Company and threw the entire cargo into the sea. There, in tax rebellion, began the American Revolution.

This iconic event in US history, the one from which the modern Tea Party takes its name, helped establish a national aversion to taxation that has remained at the heart of the American psyche ever since. For a people defined by the idea of rugged individualism, self-reliance and the frontier spirit, the presumption of low taxes – and correspondingly small government – is an article of faith as sacred as motherhood and apple pie.

 The Problem

Few would contest the manifold economic success that these principles have delivered. They are the very foundation of the American economic model, and helped to make the US the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen. But here’s the problem. In recent times, both government and its spending commitments have been getting a whole lot bigger. Taxation, on the other hand, has failed to keep pace. On the contrary: under George W Bush, America reduced its tax burden even as its spending escalated. Since President Obama came to power, spending has run further out of control, with no compensating tax increases.

Hard as it is to believe in some of its states, America as a whole remains a low-tax economy in comparison with most other “rich” nations. Yet its government spending is approaching the heroic levels seen in Europe. For the time being, the gap is filled by borrowing from foreigners, a plainly unsustainable and humbling path – made all the more worrying by the fact that there are huge spending pressures still to come from the needs and demands of an ageing population. Something has to give. Either America must spend less, or tax more.

Misconceptions

But before analysing the significance of this choice, we need to lay a couple of misconceptions about the nature of the current crisis to rest. From President Obama to Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary, to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, to our own Vince Cable, the airwaves have been ringing with apocalyptic warnings about the likely consequences for the world economy should Congress fail to break the impasse over the debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline. Any American default, Summers has warned, would be like “Lehman on steroids… it’s gonna be financial Armageddon”.

Lagarde has wagged her finger at the US and urged action similar in its “courageousness” to that taken last week by the eurozone, which she somewhat optimistically seems to think has now largely solved its problems. Meanwhile, the Business Secretary, in an extraordinary and ill-advised outburst, accused “a few Right-wing nutters” in Congress of posing a bigger threat to the world economy than the trials and tribulations of the euro.

To heap the blame for America’s indecision on a particular ideology is to misunderstand the nature and importance of the debate – yet Mr Cable seems determined to accuse President Obama’s opponents of holding the world to ransom.

Are any of these warnings valid? Well, if America were to default, it would indeed be a seismic upheaval of shattering dimensions. In reality, it’s not going to happen. What’s being played out here is not, at this stage at least, an existential event, but a political charade.

Distress signs

There have been signs of distress in financial markets in recent days, but in the main, investors have displayed a remarkable lack of concern, with US Treasuries still trading at yields close to their historic lows.

They are right to be sanguine. The bottom line is that Mr Obama is not about to go down as the first president in history to default – which in any case would be to breach the Constitutional amendment stating that “the validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned”.

Much as he would like to blame Republicans for such a calamity, he would not be able to escape responsibility. It is the President’s job to find solutions. The buck ultimately stops with him.

If, by some outside chance, the President does petulantly decide to throw himself off the cliff, it will be an unnecessary and surreal type of default. America is not insolvent, in the same way that some of the peripheral economies of the eurozone plainly are. It’s simply that it cannot agree on the correct balance between spending and tax. The crisis is political, not economic – which makes it quite unlike the situation in the eurozone, where it is both.

The immediate problem of the deficit – and possibly of the longer-term demographic challenges, too – could easily be solved with a single measure, the imposition of a European-style federal sales tax, akin to VAT. Yet hell will freeze over before such an abomination is agreed.

With characteristic wit, Mr Summers has summarised the issue thus: Democrats are against VAT because they see it as a regressive tax which would hit the poor, while Republicans are against it because they see it as a money machine that would entrench high state spending. Perhaps if Democrats came to appreciate its qualities as a revenue generator, and Republicans its regressive characteristics, they might actually be able to agree.

The parties have produced several rival plans for fiscal consolidation, but there’s little merit in getting into the minutiae: to the outside world, they all look as flawed and implausible as each other.

And the detail of the argument is, in any case, almost irrelevant compared to the titanic battle for the heart and soul of America’s future that underlies it.

Staying loyal

Does the US economy stay loyal to its low-tax, libertarian traditions, or does it retreat into serene, low-growth, European-style old age by reinforcing its social welfare programmes and charging citizens the taxes necessary to pay for them? Not since the Civil War has the nation been so polarised. If it were possible to split the US in two, and for each half to go its own way, it might provide some kind of a solution. But, ultimately, one voice must triumph over another.

For the US to forsake the principles that have underpinned its economic success for more than two centuries would be a disaster not just for the country, but for the world. European experience teaches that rising taxes almost invariably entrench higher spending. Once a culture of entitlements – a cushy, cradle-to-grave welfare state – becomes established, it’s very difficult to remove. When a choice then has to be made between spending on welfare and productive investment in the nation’s future – education, defence and so on – the latter is always culled first.

European style

Paradoxically, although moving to a European-style tax base would provide all the revenues the country needs, it would inevitably mark the start of America’s long retreat from military and economic hegemony.

Economic might is as much to do with confidence and perception as reality. The spectacle of a nation so lacking in credible political leadership that it cannot resolve its differences, threatens to default on its debts, and would rather print money than face up to its underlying economic challenges, is already perilously close to breaking the spell. America needs to wake up, before it’s too late.

US dollar cracking at the seams


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WHAT ARE WE TO DO By TAN SRI LIN SEE-YAN

MY last columns dealt with the international monetary system (IMS), specifically why the world monetary order is in disorder, and why free movement of capital underpinning the IMS is increasingly being challenged.

Today’s column concerns the basic anchor of the IMS the reserve currency role of the US dollar and why it will give way to rapidly rising pressures towards multipolarity, that is, the concurrent pulling of forces emanating from more than two growth centres.

In 20 years, the World Bank expects the newly emerging BRIIKs (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and Korea) to join China as new drivers of growth towards a multipolar world. Today, none of their currencies is used for reserve accumulation, invoicing or exchange rate anchor. The status quo remains centred on the US dollar. But change is in the air. In 1991, the G3 (US, euro-zone and Japan) accounted for 49% of world trade, and the BRIICKs (BRIIKs plus China) only 9%. By 2010, the G3’s share had fallen to 29%, while the BRIICKs’ share rose beyond 30%. Without doubt, the post-war structure dominated by advanced nations is in the midst of fundamental change. Globalisation and the rapid growth of the emerging market economies (EMEs) are bound to translate into greater global economic power. It’s just a matter of time.

Multipolarity

We are witnessing the cracking of the global institutions created in 1945. They are still unadjusted to the growing weight of the EMEs, reflecting reluctance by the United States and euro-zone to come to terms with a world they no longer dominate. It is also a manifestation of uneasiness in China, India and Brazil that the management of their domestic economy, long the jurisdiction of internal prerogative, now matters to the rest of the world.

This is understandable. The founding of the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World Bank) after the devastation of the Great Depression and WWII set in motion an era of stability at a time when the US was unchallenged in the global economy. In international finance, this post-war order began to fall apart in the 1970s as the US economy floundered, the dollar tanked, Europe was rebuilt and Japan asserted itself.

The move towards multipolarism was, however, interrupted in the 1980s and 1990s by the Soviet Union’s collapse, the euro-zone’s indigestion after swallowing a re-united Germany, and the Asian currency crisis. The US was thrust into the forefront to lead. But, the home-made US financial crisis in the 2000s in the face of rapidly rising EMEs, brought the era of US dominance to an end.

Yet, neither the US, euro-zone nor China has the capacity and clout to manage global problems. Happily, the G-20 came along to replace the G7, stumbling on to a mutually beneficial co-operation. Prof Barry Eichengreen‘s reference in history of another scenario is scary: “The decades following WWI were marked by the inability of rising or declining powers to stabilise the world economy or create functioning global institutions; the result was the Great Depression & WWII.”

A definite shift is taking place, driven by the rising power of the emerging BRIICKs, together representing more than one-half of global growth in 14 years. According to the World Bank report, Multipolarity: The New Global Economy, the EMEs will grow at 4.7% per annum up until 2025, which is double the rate of the advanced nations (2.3%). The implications are far-reaching:

  • the balance of global growth and investment will shift to the EMEs;
  • this shift will lead to boosts in investment flows to nations driving global growth, with a significant rise in cross-border M&As, and a changing corporate landscape where established multinationals will largely be absent;
  • a new IMS will gradually evolve, displacing the US$ as the world’s main reserve currency by 2025;
  • the euro and the RMB (renmimbi, China’s currency) will establish themselves on an equal footing in a new “multi-currency” monetary system;
  • the euro is the most credible rival to the US$; “its status is poised to expand provided the euro can successfully overcome sovereign debt crisis currently faced by some member countries and can avoid moral hazard problems associated with bailouts within the European Union;”
  • the rising role (and internationalising) of the RMB should “resolve the disparity between China’s growing economic strength on the global stage and its heavy reliance on foreign currencies;” and
  • the transition will happen gradually

At no time in modern history have so many EMEs been at the forefront of an evolving multipolar economic system.

A strong US dollar a delusion

The US dollar is the reserve currency. This refers to its use by foreign central banks and governments as part of their international reserves. This role, combined with its widespread use as a medium of exchange (transactions and settlement vehicle), a standard of measurement (unit of account) and a store of value (method of holding wealth), has given rise to the key currency status of the US dollar. For these reasons, the US serves as world banker.

This was not planned. It just evolved since it met various needs of foreign official institutions and foreign private parties more effectively than any alternative could. Many of the reasons for the use of US dollar by official and private parties are the same. However, the aims of the two users need not always coincide. If the US dollar’s role as reserve currency was terminated, its use by private traders and institutions would most likely remain, perhaps even stronger. The wheels of commerce keep turning. The role of the US dollar as world banker remains relevant.

It is a long-standing tradition for the US Treasury to favour a strong US dollar. The US Fed has no say since it is outside its purview of fighting inflation and unemployment.

The exchange rate is just another price. The price of the US dollar relative to other currencies is determined in the market, and not under the control of anyone. An increase in demand for US dollar or a reduction in its supply strengthens the US dollar. Lower demand and increased supply will weaken the US dollar.

A strong US dollar is not always good. It depends on what causes it to strengthen; if the cause is rising productivity or innovation, that’s good. But in an economy struggling to grow and to create more jobs, a strong US dollar is not so desirable. A weak dollar means goods are cheaper relative to foreign goods; it stimulates exports and reduces imports. Foreign goods get more expansive but more US jobs are created.

At this time, US is better off with a weak dollar. Strangely, most politicians thinks it’s desirable for the US dollar to weaken only against one currency, the renminbi. The US Congress routinely bashes China for not weakening the US dollar enough. Indeed, a fall in the value of the US dollar against all currencies would help the US even more. Yet, in the next breath, the same Congress wants the US dollar to be strong. This delusion just won’t go away. They are like failed dieters who talk earnestly about healthy living while eating a chocolate doughnut.

The US dollar isn’t going anywhere. It is not about to be replaced anytime soon. The only dangers are (i) reckless US mismanagement giving rise to chronic inflation (or deflation if the exit of QE2, the second round of quantitative easing, is not well handled), which is implausible; and (ii) US budget deficits run out of control; outright debt default is far-fetched. Mark Twain once responded to accounts of his ill health by saying “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. He might well have referred to the US dollar. For the moment, the patient is stable, external symptoms notwithstanding. But there will be grounds for worry if he doesn’t commit to a healthier lifestyle.

The euro and renminbi

Today, the US dollar faces growing competition in the global currency space. The serious contender is the euro, which has gained ground as a currency goods are invoiced and as official reserves held. Nevertheless, share of reserves held in US dollar remains well over double the share held in euros; US$ share did fall from 71% in 2000 to 67% in 2005 and 62% in 2009, while euro’s share rose from 24% in 2005 to more than 27% in 2009. In terms of global forex, the US$ market turns over US$3.5 trillion daily, more than double that in euros. But the US dollar share of the market fell from 45% in 2001 to 42% in 2010. Euro capital markets are of comparable depth and liquidity as the US dollar’s, and the euro-zone and US economies are roughly the same size.

Events since 2008 have shaken faith in the US financial markets. But the banking crisis and its economic fallout are a trans-Atlantic affair. Continuing euro bailouts is a sign the old continent is not much safer than the US. Worried savers may still sleep better with US$ under their pillow. So for the euro, it’s going to be a long haul.

The sheer dynamism of China and the globalisation of its corporations and banks will propel the renminbi to a greater international role. It can become a global settlement currency this year. China has made good progress, signing currency swaps with more central banks. The issuance of renminbi-denominated bonds is actively promoted. Renminbi offshore deposits in Hong Kong (to top 1 trillion renminbi by year-end) are rising rapidly, and offshore renminbi trading will expand beyond Hong Kong.

But with the undervalued exchange rate, an asymmetry in settlement has arisen. Foreign importers are reluctant to settle in renminbi, while foreign exporters are glad to do so. In the end, success at internationalising the renminbi depends on the pace China liberalises the capital account.

The problem lies in speculative capital flows aimed at profiting from arbitrage. Capital controls remain as China’s last line of defence against hot’ money inflows. Its policy continues to encourage non-residents to hold more renminbi and renminbi-denominated assets. The sequencing of policy adjustments remains critical as China moves forward. The road ahead is going to be bumpy.

Policies co-ordination

By 2025, the World Bank’s best bet is the emergence of a multipolar world centered around the US dollar, euro and renminbi. A world supported by the likelihood US, euro-zone & China will constitute the three major “growth poles” by then. They would provide stimulus to other nations through expanding trade, finance and technology transfers, which in turn creates international demand for their currencies. Already, private investment inflows into EMEs are expected at US$1.04 trillion this year (mainly to China) against US$990bil in 2010 and US$640bil in 2009.

Inherent in this shift is rising competition among them, which is real. This is bound to create situations of potential conflict, which can exact a heavy toll on global financial markets and growth. This calls for workable mechanisms to strengthen policy co-ordination across the major growth poles in particular. This is critical in reducing risks of political and economic instability.

In the recent crisis, the G-20 was able to pick low-hanging fruits by managing the re-alignment of macro-economic policies aimed at generally common objectives to get out of recession and to rebuild financial systems. In today’s world, shifts in policy co-ordination will be increasingly towards more politically sensitive domestic fiscal and monetary and exchange rate policies. Also, the interests of the least developed countries (LDCs) have to be safeguarded against pressures accompanying the transition to a multipolar order.

Against the backdrop of the tragic earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan, the political turmoil of the Arab spring’ gripping much of Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and growing uncertainties emanating from euro-zone sovereign debt crisis, global growth remains at sub-par this year with high unemployment, and rising inflation in the EMEs and LDCs. This calls for building confidence and promoting investments to boost productivity and create jobs to absorb the large pool of youth in MENA in particular. The LDCs and MENA nations are heavily dependent on external demand for growth. Aid and technical assistance have the ability to cushion adjustments as they adapt in the transition process.

According to the World Bank: “It is also critical that major developed economies and EMEs simultaneously craft policies that are mindful of the growing interdependency associated with the increasing presence of developing economies on the global stage and leverage such interdependency to derive closer international cooperation and prosperity worldwide.”

A former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard-educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching and promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome at starbiz@thestar.com.my

U.S. gets C credit rating, lower than Mexico


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Weiss judgment ‘attention-grabbing,’ says president of Egan-Jones

By Alistair Barr, MarketWatch

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — The U.S. got a sovereign credit rating of C on Thursday, in line with ratings for such smaller economies as Mexico, Estonia and Colombia.

Weiss Ratings, based in Jupiter, Fla., has rated the creditworthiness of financial institutions for several years, but the firm launched sovereign- debt ratings of 47 countries on Thursday. The U.S. rating of C (Fair) ranks it 33rd, Weiss noted in a statement.

A C from Weiss is roughly equivalent to a BBB rating from the big rating agencies like Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. That’s about two notches above non-investment grade, or junk, status.

U.S. dollar gets crushed, again

Why the dollar’s getting sold lower, pushing the euro to a rate of $1.48, and how the Federal Reserve is factoring into the greenback’s decline.

The rating comes just over a week after S&P revised the outlook on its AAA rating for U.S. government debt, cutting it to negative from stable. Read the story here.

”The AAA/Aaa assigned to U.S. sovereign debt by Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch is unfair to investors and savers, who are under-compensated for the risks they are taking,” Weiss Ratings President Martin Weiss said in a statement. “An honest rating is also urgently needed to help support the political compromises and collective sacrifices the U.S. must make in order to restore its finances.”

China, Thailand get top ratings

The firm gave top A ratings to China and Thailand and assigned A- ratings to Switzerland, South Korea, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

By contrast, Greece got a rating of E (very weak), while Portugal, Pakistan, Spain and Venezuela received D+ ratings from Weiss.

The U.S. shares C ratings from Weiss with such large countries as Japan, Brazil and Canada as well as with smaller economies like Colombia, Estonia and Mexico.

The amount of U.S. sovereign debt outstanding has soared in recent years as the government bailed out financial institutions and used huge fiscal stimulus programs to get the economy out of the worst slump since the Great Depression. Read more about the second debt storm hitting nations.

‘Attention-grabbing’

Despite high government debt, the U.S. still has attributes that make it more creditworthy, according to Sean Egan, president of Egan-Jones Ratings, a rating agency that’s paid by investors rather than issuers.

“The U.S. is the largest economy in the world, home to most industry-leading firms and maintains the reserve currency of the world,” Egan said. “That provides significant support beyond credit metrics like debt to GDP.”

The Weiss rating is “attention grabbing,” Egan added. “But unless they’re seeing very different things from other people it’s hard to support a C rating.”

In its Thursday report, Weiss gave a C- rating to Argentina, which defaulted on some of its external debt in 2002.

“The U.S. and Argentina don’t usually travel in the same sphere,” Egan noted.

‘Enough time’

Egan-Jones has a AAA rating on U.S. government debt. But the firm put that on negative watch in early March. That means there’s a “better-than-even chance” of a downgrade within the next six months, according to Egan.

“This problem is being given the highest-level attention currently in Washington,” Egan said. “Typically one shouldn’t worry as much about problems that have a spotlight on them — especially when there’s still enough time to react.

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