The rail economics of East Coast Rail Link (ECRL)


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Rail link seen as game changer but cost is a concern.

TOK Bali, a fishing village in Kelantan with its beautiful sandy beaches and pristine blue waters has long been a hidden gem among well-travelled backpackers. But that may soon change. The idyllic town is one that is touted to potentially become a tourist hotspot, as it sits along the alignment of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a multi-billion infrastructure project that promises many economic spin-offs.

After almost a decade in planning, ECRL was launched with great pomp this week.

Touted as a key game-changer for the east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia, the interstate ECRL is expected to help the economy of the four states that it covers by an additional 1.5% per year over the next 50 years.

On a micro level, more employment opportunities, particularly skilled jobs, will be made available to Malaysians. Domestic industry players especially in the construction sector, can now anticipate construction contracts to the tune of RM16bil, at least.

   
Another milstone:Najib checking out a train model at the ground-breaking ceremony this week.He called ECRL ‘another milestore in the country’s land public transport history”.

The ECRL is expected to benefit freight transport because it would link key economic and industrial areas within the East Coast Economic Region such as the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park, Gambang Halal Park, Kertih Biopolymer Park and Tok Bali Integrated Fisheries Park to both Kuantan Port and Port Klang.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak called it “another milestone in the country’s land public transport history”.

Despite the much highlighted economic benefits from the rail network, the venture is attracting its own share of controversies from the way the contract was awarded to the price of contract.

For one, China’s state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) has been appointed for the construction of ECRL via a direct negotiation method.

Detractors have labelled ECRL – at a cost of RM80mil per kilometre – as the world’s costliest rail project. Note that, the Gemas-Johor Baru double-tracking stretch costs RM45mil per km.

ECRL, however, will go over hilly terrain and has several tunnels to be built.

There are questions on whether the 688km rail venture, at RM55bil, will be financially feasible.

Sources say the price tag is unlikely to have included land acquisition costs.

They indicate that close to half of the land plots required for the rail link sit on private land and would require land acquisition. At this point, the total land acquisition cost is unknown.

No money in rail

The concerns of the critics are understandable, given the fact that public infrastructure projects, namely rail projects are usually not commercially viable.

A quick check on the finances of Malaysia’s very own Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) and a number of major rail operators abroad, affirms the fact that rail projects do not promise easy money.

The loss-making KTMB which was corporatised in 1992, has not been able to financially sustain itself, resulting in the deterioration of its level of service despite attempts to turn around the company.

According to the railway service operator’s latest publicly available audited report for financial year 2013, the group registered a total net loss of RM128.2mil. However, note that, the net loss had narrowed by 46% from RM238.5mil in the previous year.

Had it not been for the government’s subsidy which kept it afloat, KTMB would find it difficult to continue its operations without a further raise of its fare.

In India, where railway is a favoured mode of transportation, the Indian Railways has been incurring losses on passenger operations every year. Earlier this year, the lower chamber of the Indian parliament was told that the state-owned rail operator recorded a loss of Rs359.18bil (RM24.04bil) in the period of 2015 to 2016.

This was slightly higher than its loss of Rs334.91bil (RM22.42bil) in the period of 2014-2015.

On the other hand, China’s state-owned rail operator, China Railway Corp, was reported to have recorded a 58% increase in earnings last year despite huge losses in the first nine months. However, a zoom into its finances reveals that the high profit made was only possible due to a significant annual government subsidy.

Similarly, Singapore’s SMRT Corp which manages the city-state’s rail operations posted a profit of S$7.4mil (RM23.33mil) in its financial year of 2016. This was on the back of a revenue of S$681mil (RM2.15bil), which rose by 4.1% year-on-year.

While the rail operations saw higher ridership in that year, SMRT Corp would have registered a loss of S$9.6mil (RM30.26mil) for its rail business, if not for the net property tax refund of S$17.1mil (RM53.9mil).

Considering the lack of commercial viability in such rail projects, ECRL would ultimately require assistance from the government in ensuring smooth operations, while maintaining an affordable service for its users. This is akin a crucial trade-off, to complement the government’s move to provide an integrated transportation system in Malaysia, which is long overdue.

AmBank Group’s chief economist Anthony Dass tells StarBizWeek that for every ringgit spent on capital projects such as transportation, it generates a return or multiplier effect of around 5% to 20%.

In his estimation, he says the ECRL should create around RM50-55bil in terms of gross domestic product.

“The impact of this project to the economy will be multilevel. Impact on the respective states’ GDP and national GDP will be evident, though the magnitude of the impact on the respective states is poised to vary.

“On a longer term, once the entire project is completed, we expect strong benefits seeping into services related activities. Properties in the major towns is likely to enjoy more especially the port-connected towns, driven by logistics- and trade-related businesses.

“Other areas would benefit from the movement of tourism. As for the smaller towns, they are more likely to enjoy from the spillovers of this connectivity through movement of people commuting to work and new areas of business growth especially in areas like the small and medium businesses,” says Anthony.

High cargo projections

By the year 2040, an estimated 8 million passengers and 53 million tonnes of cargo are expected to use the ECRL service annually as the primary transport between the east coast and west coast.

By 2040, ECRL is projected to support a freight density of 19 million tonnes.

The freight cargo projections of the rail network stands in stark contrast to the total cargo volume running through the entire Malaysian railways today.

As of 2015, the entire Malaysian railways operations handled a sum of 6.21 million tons of cargo, according to a study related to the ECRL.

To note, the revenue from the operation of the venture is projected to be obtained through a transportation ratio of 30% passengers and 70% freight.

If the projections of ECRL are anything to go by, the planners are anticipating a ballistic growth in volume of cargo being moved along the tracks.

Is this realistic?

Socio Economic Research Centre executive director Lee Heng Guie remains concerned on the details of the project financing, albeit the expected trickle-down benefits of ECRL.

“While ECRL has been identified as a high impact public transport project that will connect east coast states with the west coast, especially Greater KL and Klang Valley, the high cost of RM55bil requires further justification. More clarity on the cost structure and terms and conditions of the loan is needed to ease public genuine concerns.

“It must be noted that the high costs, low profits and long gestation periods of transportation projects do not always make them financially viable. The financial viability of the ECRL would depend on the revenue generated to cover operating cash flow, including interest expenses.

“As the loan will have a seven year moratorium, the bunching of loan repayment together with interest payment will be substantial in the remaining 13 years,” he says.

Lowering cost the key

In terms of funding, 85% of the total project value of RM55bil would be to be funded by Exim Bank of China’s through a soft loan at a 3.25% interest.

The balance 15% would be financed through a sukuk programme by local banks.

There is no payment for the first seven years, and the government starts paying after the seventh year over a 13-year period.

At 3.25% interest per annum, the interest servicing bill for the project is huge.

“Hence the main challenge to this project will be to bring down cost as low as possible. The lower the cost, the lesser it would be the burden on the government’s balance sheet,” says an industry player.

Echoing a similar view, Lee noted the ERCL project loan is expected to be treated as “contingent liability” as it will be taken by Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd, a special purpose vehicle owned by the Ministry of Finance.

This is also to ensure that the Federal Government will not breach the self-imposed debt to GDP ratio of 55%.

As at end-March 2017, the Federal Government’s debt stood at RM664.5bil or 50.2% of GDP.

At the end of the day, despite the concerns on the possible cost overrun in the ECRL project, proper management and efficiency in project delivery could lead to cost savings and ultimately lower overall expenditure for ECRL.

History has shown that Malaysian companies can lower the cost, especially on rail projects compared to foreign players.

In the late 1990s, a consortium of India and China state-owned companies were awarded the contract to build a double track electrified railway system from Padang Besar to Johor Baru. The cost was estimated at RM44bil and paid through crude palm oil.

However, an MMC Corp Bhd-Gamuda Bhd joint venture managed to win the job in 2003 with a RM14.3bil proposal. However this project was shelved and subsequently continued after a lull of few years.

ECRL is a seven year project to be built in stages. Many factors can come into play in that period like delay in construction and rise in material costs.

However in the bigger picture, the infrastructure venture should not merely be seen from a commercial-viable lens alone. The trickle-down benefits on the economy and the Malaysian population should also be factored into the calculations.

The lower the cost, the higher the multiplier effect.

Source: The Star by ganeshwaran kanaandgurmeet kaur

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Malaysia must retool education, skills to adapt to knowledge economy


KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia needs to reinvent its education system to adapt to the knowledge economy, which has led to a sharp reduction in unskilled jobs and spike in demand for data analysts.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, said Malaysia needs to retool its education and skills, and experiment across the spectrum, in positioning itself in the new economy.

“Formal education is outdated because of the speed of new knowledge. Companies do not spend on ‘on the job’ training, because of cost cuts and staff turnover,” he said during his presentation at the NCCIM Economic Forum 2017 yesterday.

Between 2007 and 2015, the loss of unskilled jobs was 55% relative to other jobs while demand for data analysts over the last five years has increased 372%.

In the global supply chain, old economy companies are quickly losing their edge as digitisation moves faster than physical goods while unskilled jobs will be quickly replaced by robotics due to the fast adoption of artificial intelligence (AI).

“Moving up the global value chain is about moving up knowledge intensity. If you don’t get smarter you won’t get the business.

“We are already plugged into the global value chain. We are very successful in that area but we cannot stay where we are. Remaining still is no longer an option. We need to move from tasks to value added growth to high value added production. In order to do that, we need to learn to learn.”

Sheng said the Malaysian economy is doing well but faces many challenges, including subdued energy prices, growing trade protectionism, geopolitical tensions and is still very reliant on foreign labour.

“Are we ready for the new economy? The way trade is growing is phenomenal but the new economy’s challenges are great and very complicated politically because technology is great for us as it gives us whatever we want but at the cost of our jobs,” he said.

When education fails to keep pace with technology, the result is inequality, populism and major political upheaval.

“What the new economy tells us is that robotics or AI (artificial intelligence) calls for Education 4.0, which means that we have to learn for life,” he said.

Sheng noted that Malaysia has successfully moved quietly into education services, medical tourism, higher quality foods, all through upgrading skills, branding and marketing.

“But formal education has become bureaucratised, whereas we are not spending enough on upgrading our labour force, prefering to hire imported labour,” he said.

Although Malaysia cannot compete in terms of scale and speed, especially against giants such as China, it can compete in terms of scope with strength in diversity, soft skills and adaptability.

“We are winners … but have we got the mindset?” Sheng questioned.

He said Malaysia must upgrade its physical technology through research and development, harness its unique social technology and digitise its business model in order to create wealth.

While the government can help, he added, true success comes from community self-help irrespective of race or creed, and retired baby boomers who have wealth of experience must mentor the youth to start thinking about the new economy.

Eva Yeong, sunbiz@thesundaily.com
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MALAYSIA should leverage on social technology, which is its true strength, … Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, who is a distinguished fellow at Asia Global Institute, … the new economy as it involves lifelong learning to adapt, innovate and create. … To enhance the skills of the civil service, he pointed out Singapore’s …

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China holds parade in celebration of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) 90th Birthday



Viewhttps://youtu.be/2fhP6IcIiv4

What message did China’s military parade send?

China holds ceremony to mark 90th anniversary of PLA founding

Chinese President Xi celebrates military in speech  focused on peace, future – CGTN America

BEIJING — President Xi Jinping said Tuesday that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is moving rapidly toward “strong” informationized armed forces.

Xi said the PLA has transformed from a “millet plus rifles” single-service force to one that has fully-fledged services and has basically completed mechanization.

He said that the PLA must be bold in reform and adept in innovation while staying away from rigidity and stagnation at any time and under any circumstances.

Xi reaffirmed the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s absolute leadership over the PLA.

“To build a strong military, [we] must unswervingly adhere to the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces, and make sure that the people’s army always follow the Party,” he said.

Xi called for a new generation of “capable, brave and virtuous” army “with souls” in order to build a strong military.

Calling political work the “lifeline” of the PLA, Xi said troops must have ironclad faith, beliefs, disciplines and responsibilities, and retain their nature and tenet as the people’s army.

Xi has urged the country’s armed forces to bear in mind the sacred duty of fighting for the people.

The PLA is deeply rooted in the people and the strength comes from the people, said Xi.

Xi called on the PLA to maintain its close relationship with the people and “go through thick and thin” with them.

The PLA should also actively contribute to the economic and social development in stationed areas to benefit the people with actions, said Xi.

Xi urged boosting integrated military and civilian development amid efforts to build a strong military.

China must build a national strategic system and capacity of military-civilian integration, he said.

The CPC has established its thoughts on building a strong military in a new phase, Xi said.

The Party has put forward a series of new ideas and requirements concerning national defense and military building in the past five years since the 18th CPC National Congress, which together constitute the CPC’s thoughts on building a strong army in the new phase, Xi said.

The Party’s military strengthening theories should be constantly enriched and developed to cope with new challenges and solve new problems under new circumstances, he said.

He stressed “coordinated, balanced and inclusive development” of economic and national defense construction.

China will never compromise on its sovereignty, security or development interests, Xi said.

“The Chinese people love peace. We will never seek aggression or expansion, but we have the confidence to defeat all invasions. We will never allow any people, organization or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time, in any form,” Xi said.

“No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests,” he said.

Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, made the remarks while addressing a grand gathering in celebration of the PLA’s 90th founding anniversary.

Source: China Daily/Asian News Network

PLA ready to guard sovereignty 

 

Standing ready: Chinese paramilitary policemen stand in formation at Tiananmen Square after attending a ceremony to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. — AFP

BEIJING: The Chinese army will step up its pace of improving its joint combat capabilities and “stand ready to fight and win at any time”, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan said.

Speaking about the cross-Straits situation, Chang said yesterday the People’s Liberation Army is “confident, capable and fully prepared to resolutely safeguard State sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Chang made the remarks during a speech at a grand reception marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, which fell yester­day.

President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission, attended the reception along with other party and state leaders.

The PLA has come a long way since its birth during the armed uprising in the city of Nanchang on Aug 1, 1927, when it had only 20,000 soldiers.

Xi oversaw and addressed a grand military parade on Sunday marking the 90th anniversary at the Zhurihe Training Base in North China’s Inner Mongolia region.

Yesterday morning, Xi attended a grand ceremony in Beijing commemorating the 90th anniversary and delivered a speech.

Led by Xi, the PLA has been advancing reform, technological upgrades, boosting training and combat readiness, Chang said.

Through this, it has achieved thorough restructuring and greatly enhanced its combat effectiveness, he added.

The military will press ahead with reforms and staunchly focus on winning in combat and training for readiness, Chang said.

Speaking of the cross-Straits situation, Chang said adherence to the 1992 Consensus and opposition to Taiwan independence constitute the political foundation of peace and development of cross-Straits relations.

Any form of secessionist attempt by anyone at any time would surely be opposed by the whole Chinese people and nation, he added.

Noting the Chinese military’s role as a contributor to world peace, he said the PLA facilitates global development and supports international order.

As of June, the Chinese military had participated in 24 UN peacekeeping missions, sending 31,000 personnel, 13 of whom lost their lives on duty. — China Daily/Asia News Network

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China’s Baidu taps Partners for Driverless Car Project


Growth strategy: A fleet of vehicles equipped with Baidu’s autonomous driving technologies conduct road testing in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province. Widely considered the Google of China, Baidu is hoping research into artificial intelligence will create a new generation of products to help revive revenue growth.

https://www.bloomberg.com/api/embed/iframe?id=bf6ae8a1-432c-4499-a8aa-47932c408ae0

  • Partners include Bosch, Continental, Chinese automakers
    Company also showed off a voice-activated speaker device
  • Partners include Bosch, Continental, Chinese automakers
    Company also showed off a voice-activated speaker device

Baidu Inc has enlisted more than 50 partners for its Apollo driverless project, signing up major players in areas from mapping and ride-sharing to automaking to aid the Chinese search giant’s foray into AI-powered vehicles.

The program aims to open up part of Baidu’s autonomous car software in the same way that Google released its Android operating system for smartphones. By encouraging more companies to build products using them, Baidu hopes to fine-tune its nascent systems and overtake rival research efforts by the likes of Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo.

Baidu listed four Chinese carmakers, suppliers Robert Bosch GmbH and Continental AG and technology companies including Microsoft Corp. as part of the Apollo alliance. Southeast Asian ride-hailing giant Grab and mapping systems company TomTom NV are also joining the program, which aims to get fully autonomous vehicles on city streets as early as in 2018.

Widely considered the Google of China, Baidu is hoping research into artificial intelligence will create a new generation of products to help revive revenue growth. It has a stated goal of releasing a driverless car by 2018 with mass production to begin by 2021, but some analysts believe its technology still lags that of competitors like Waymo. At a Baidu conference Wednesday, developers showed off the Chinese search provider’s personal assistant, DuerOS.

Baidu’s shares traded in New York rose 2.7 percent to $184.76 at 10:14 a.m. The stock has risen 12 percent so far this year.

The raft of Apollo agreements unveiled Wednesday at Baidu Create cover virtually every automotive field. Dutch company TomTom said in a statement it will help Baidu with high-definition mapping in the U.S. and Western Europe. Several of Apollo’s members already have separate cooperation agreements in place with Waymo and other driverless car providers.

“As we and our partners contribute to the platform in our areas of specialty, we all gain more, with the results far greater than just our own,” Baidu group president Qi Lu said in a statement.

— Bloomberg News With assistance by David Ramli

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Hardwired for global hegemony – American freedom and democracy


Hardwired for global hegemony – American democracy has become subverted by the rise of many hegemonic groups acting behind the scenes.

FOURTH of July was the 241st anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. On that historic day in 1776, 13 British colonies in North America cut their links with their oppressor and proclaimed themselves to be the independent, sovereign United States of America.

The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence contains some of the most stirring words ever penned in a political or legal document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The eloquence of this passage distils the moral idealism of the forefathers of America’s independence and their vision and aspiration for the then new nation.

Indeed, in the decades that followed, the Declaration inspired many other similar documents around the world, including the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. Abraham Lincoln referred to the Declaration in his quest to abolish slavery in the US.

Till today, students of public law around the world look with admiration to the American Constitution’s safeguards for liberty, its protection against state despotism and its vibrant provisions for check and balance of power.

Sadly, however, a wide chasm between theory and reality is discernible. Even in its pioneering years the “land of liberty” violated its lofty ideals.

The US expanded across North America by slaughtering the Native American population. “How the West was won” is a story penned with the blood of indigenous people.

The US wrested Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, part of Colorado and Utah from Mexico. Though professing anti-colonialism, it acquired a few colonies abroad.

Friends of America note with sadness that after World War II, the use of brute military force and “American exceptionalism” have become very pronounced.

In 2015, the US spent US$598.5bil (RM2.6 trillion) on defence, even though it is not threatened by any enemies. It maintains 800 military bases in more than 70 countries around the world.

It is the chief manufacturer and seller of weapons of mass destruction and often uses proxies to sell murderous weapons to both warring sides.

A nation born in liberty has metamorphosed into a nation with an insatiable addiction to war and the ethos of a garrison state. From the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Mesopotamia, America remains in constant war to pursue its hegemonic and strategic interests.

William Blum, a historian and US foreign policy critic, has calculated that since World War II the US has nuked, bombed or been militarily involved in 31 countries and has directly or indirectly killed or maimed between 15 and 20 million people, 90% of whom were innocent civilians. Pentagon records their extermination as “collateral damage”.

Nations in Asia that have suffered devastation at American hands are Afghanistan (1998 to the present), Pakistan (2003, 2006 to the present), Japan (1945), Cambodia (1969-70), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1964-73), China (1945-6), Korea (1950-53) and Indonesia (1958).

In the Middle East, victims of America’s “deadly export of democracy” are Iraq (1991 to the present), Iran (1987 and 2003), Kuwait (1991), Lebanon (1983-84), Syria (1983-84, 2014 to the present), Palestine (2010) and Yemen (2003, 2009, 2011 to the present).

In Africa, the US has intervened militarily in Libya (1986, 2011, 2015 to the present), Congo (1964), Sudan (1998) and Somalia (1993, 2001-8 and 2010).

In Latin America, the US has imposed its military will on Cuba (1959-61), El Salvador (1980s), Guatemala (1954, 60, 67-69), Grenada (1983), Nicaragua (1980s), Peru (1965) and Panama (1989).

Europe has not been spared. Bosnia in 1994 and 1995 and Yugoslavia in 1999 were mercilessly bombed.

What is notable is that most of the targets are people of colour, those of the Third World or Muslims. It is not just a coincidence that all the nations being bombed by the USA today happen to be Muslim.

In addition to direct military attacks, the US wages proxy wars around the world. In Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Egypt (2013) and Ukraine (2014) the US armed rebels and hired mercenaries to subvert and overthrow governments that refused to tow its line.

Contrary to what Americans believe, the United States is one of the greatest destabilising forces in the world today. It is also the chief diplomatic, military and financial backer of the seven-decade-old genocide in Palestine.

To assert its impunity and sense of exceptionalism it has done such outrageous things as shooting down an Iranian civilian plane in 1988 (when a US Navy ship reportedly mistook the Airbus A300 for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet), killing all 290 on board. In 1999, it bombed the embassy of China in Belgrade. US officials later claimed it was an error.

Ever since 9/11, it runs offshore torture camps. It arms and finances terrorist groups with a view to destabilising governments it does not like.

It rejects or unsigns international treaties like the Ottawa Convention (the Mine Ban Treaty); the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

All friends of America wonder why a nation so steeped in democracy and liberty has metamorphosed into such a war-mongering hegemon. The issue requires a separate and fuller examination.

What can be summarised is that American democracy has become subverted by the rise of many behind-the-scenes, hegemonic groups which have acquired such a stranglehold on foreign, financial and military policy that even the President and the Congress cannot defy them.

The CIA operatives, the foreign policy establishment, the military-industrial complex, the arms manufacturers, the oil barons, the gun lobby, the media, the Zionist pressure groups and the major banks constitute a parallel “deep state” that runs America.

This deep state has a vested interest in the manufacture and sale of horrendous weapons, the waging of continuous wars, the destabilisation of unfriendly regions, the control of oil supplies and the maintenance of existing trade mechanisms.

The power of the Constitution, the Congress and the President is more symbolic than real. The American electorate is either unaware or benumbed. Only if it learns more about this sad reality can any change be accomplished.

Reflecting On The Law Shad Saleem Faruqi

Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor of Law at Universiti Malaya. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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The Asian financial crisis – 20 years later




East Asian Economies Remain Diverse

 

It is useful to reflect on whether lessons have been learnt and if the countries are vulnerable to new crises.

IT’S been 20 years since the Asian financial crisis struck in July 1997. Since then, there has been an even bigger global financial crisis, starting in 2008. Will there be another crisis?

The Asian crisis began when speculators brought down the Thai baht. Within months, the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia were also affected. The East Asian Miracle turned into an Asian Financial Nightmare.

Despite the affected countries receiving only praise before the crisis, weaknesses had built up, including current account deficits, low foreign reserves and high external debt.

In particular, the countries had recently liberalised their financial system in line with international advice. This enabled local private companies to freely borrow from abroad, mainly in US dollars. Companies and banks in Korea, Indonesia and Thailand had in each country rapidly accumulated over a hundred billion dollars of external loans. This was the Achilles heel that led their countries to crisis.

These weaknesses made the countries ripe for speculators to bet against their currencies. When the governments used up their reserves in a vain attempt to stem the currency fall, three of the countries ran out of foreign exchange.

They went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans that carried draconian conditions that worsened their economic situation.

Malaysia was fortunate. It did not seek IMF loans. The foreign reserves had become dangerously low but were just about adequate. If the ringgit had fallen a bit further, the danger line would have been breached.

After a year of self-imposed austerity measures, Malaysia dramatically switched course and introduced a set of unorthodox policies.

These included pegging the ringgit to the dollar, selective capital controls to prevent short-term funds from exiting, lowering interest rates, increasing government spending and rescuing failing companies and banks.

This was the opposite of orthodoxy and the IMF policies. The global establishment predicted the sure collapse of the Malaysian economy.

But surprisingly, the economy recovered even faster and with fewer losses than the other countries. Today, the Malaysian measures are often cited as a successful anti-crisis strategy.

The IMF itself has changed a little. It now includes some capital controls as part of legitimate policy measures.

The Asian countries, vowing never to go to the IMF again, built up strong current account surpluses and foreign reserves to protect against bad years and keep off speculators. The economies recovered, but never back to the spectacular 7% to 10% pre-crisis growth rates.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis erupted with the United States as its epicentre. The tip of the iceberg was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the massive loans given out to non-credit-worthy house-buyers.

The underlying cause was the deregulation of US finance and the freedom with which financial institutions could devise all kinds of manipulative schemes and “financial products” to draw in unsuspecting customers. They made billions of dollars but the house of cards came tumbling down.

To fight the crisis, the US, under President Barack Obama, embarked first on expanding government spending and then on financial policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing”, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the US banks.

It was hoped the cheap credit would get consumers and businesses to spend and lift the economy. But instead, a significant portion of the trillions went via investors into speculative activities, including abroad to emerging economies.

Europe, on the verge of recession, followed the US with near zero interest rates and large quantitative easing, with limited results.

The US-Europe financial crisis affected Asian countries in a limited way through declines in export growth and commodity prices. The large foreign reserves built up after the Asian crisis, plus the current account surplus situation, acted as buffers against external debt problems and kept speculators at bay.

Just as important, hundreds of billions of funds from the US and Europe poured into Asia yearly in search of higher yields. These massive capital inflows helped to boost Asian countries’ growth, but could cause their own problems.

First, they led to asset bubbles or rapid price increases of houses and the stock markets, and the bubbles may burst when they are over-ripe.

Second, many of the portfolio investors are short-term funds looking for quick profit, and they can be expected to leave when conditions change.

Third, the countries receiving capital inflows become vulnerable to financial volatility and economic instability.

If and when investors pull some or a lot of their money out, there may be price declines, inadequate replenishment of bonds, and a fall in the levels of currency and foreign reserves.

A few countries may face a new financial crisis.

A new vulnerability in many emerging economies is the rapid build-up of external debt in the form of bonds denominated in the local currency.

The Asian crisis two decades ago taught that over-borrowing in foreign currency can create difficulties in debt repayment should the local currency level fall.

To avoid this, many countries sold bonds denominated in the local currency to foreign investors.

However, if the bonds held by foreigners are large in value, the country will still be vulnerable to the effects of a withdrawal.

As an example, almost half of Malaysian government securities, denominated in ringgit, are held by foreigners.

Though the country does not face the risk of having to pay more in ringgit if there is a fall in the local currency, it may have other difficulties if foreigners withdraw their bonds.

What is the state of the world economy, what are the chances of a new financial crisis, and how would the Asian countries like Malaysia fare?

These are big and relevant questions to ponder 20 years after the start of the Asian crisis and nine years after the global crisis.

But we will have to consider them in another article.

By Martin Khor Global Trend

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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Everybody has Buddha nature


‘Everybody has the Buddha nature’: Experts analyze Buddhism’s global appeal

As one of the world’s major religions, Buddhism is popular in the West despite its foreign origins and language barriers. And with exchanges of ideas between different regions, such as this month’s first China-Canada-US Buddhist Forum, Buddhism is likely to become more influential.

Buddhism’s appeal internationally is despite significant cultural and ideological differences between continents. Shen Weirong, a professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies at Tsinghua University, told Dialogue with Yang Rui that Buddhism has entered a “golden age” worldwide.

The religion is developing at speed, not only in Tibet and across other parts of China but abroad, said Shen.

In these violent times, one of the notable aspects of Buddhism is its teaching of peace. It is said that no wars have been fought in the name of Buddhism.

Dayi Shi, president of the Buddhist Association of Canada, thinks Buddhists’ sense of compassion is important.

“In Buddhist history, we don’t have any violence, because Buddha always tells us we have to have compassion,” he explained. “We have to respect each other even though we have different beliefs, we have different religions. But we still have to respect each other. Why? Because everybody has the Buddha nature.”

By Yao Nian ,Wang Dong  – CGTN  

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