(Updated)

Financial crisis redux looms in Asia as major currencies crack

Financial crisis redux looms in Asia as major currencies crack
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(Sept 26): Asian markets risk a reprise of financial crisis-level stress as two of the region’s most important currencies crumble under the onslaught of relentless dollar strength.

The yuan and yen are both tumbling due to the growing disparity between an uber-hawkish US Federal Reserve (Fed) and dovish policymakers in China and Japan. While other Asian nations are digging deep into foreign-exchange reserves to mitigate the dollar’s damage, the slump in the yuan and the yen is making things worse for everyone, threatening the region’s mantle as a preferred destination for risk investors. 

“The renminbi and yen are big anchors, and their weakness risks destabilising currencies to trade and investments in Asia,” said Vishnu Varathan, the head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank Ltd in Singapore, using another name for China’s currency. “We’re already heading towards global financial crisis levels of stress in some aspects, then the next step would be the Asian financial crisis if losses deepen.” 

The gravitational pull of China and Japan is evident in the sheer influence of their economies and trade relationships. China has been the largest trading partner of Southeast Asian nations for 13 straight years, according to a Chinese government statement. Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, is a major exporter of capital and credit. 

The tumble in the currencies of the region’s two largest economies may swell into a full-fledged crisis if it spooks overseas funds into pulling money out of Asia as a whole, leading to massive capital flight. Alternatively, the declines may set off a vicious cycle of competitive devaluations, and a slide in demand and consumer confidence.

‘Bigger threat’

“Currency risk is a bigger threat for Asian nations than interest rates,” said Taimur Baig, the chief economist of DBS Group Ltd in Singapore. “At the end of the day, all of Asia are exporters and we could see a reprise of 1997 or 1998 without the massive collateral damage.” 

Investors have already been busy pulling money from the region. Global funds have taken about US$44 billion (RM202.2 billion) out from Taiwan’s shares this year, US$20 billion from India’s equities, and US$13.7 billion from South Korean stocks, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Indonesia’s bond market has suffered US$8.2 billion in outflows.

The heft of Beijing and Tokyo is even more pronounced in financial markets. The yuan makes up more than a quarter of the weighting of Asian currency indices, according to analysis by BNY Mellon Investment Management. The yen is the third-most-traded global currency, so its weakness has had an outsized impact on its Asian counterparts. 

The rising potential for a spillover between the two largest regional currencies and their smaller peers can be seen in the fact they are moving in ever closer alignment as the dollar surges. The 120-day correlation between the yen and the MSCI EM Currency Index jumped to more than 0.9 last week, the highest since 2015, after the two were briefly inversely correlated as recently as April.

The threat of a spillover has become even more severe as currency declines accelerate. The yen tumbled passed 145 per dollar for the first time in more than two decades on Thursday (Sept 22) after US-Japan monetary policy divergence widened further when the Fed raised interest rates for a fifth straight meeting the day before. The yen retraced some of its losses after the authorities intervened, but few see the action as doing anything other than slowing its inevitable decline.

The yuan slid past its own key level of seven per dollar earlier this month, under pressure from the hawkish Fed and slowing growth in China caused by Covid-zero lockdowns and a property-market crisis. The onshore currency extended losses last Friday to a level closest to the weak end of its allowed trading band since a shock currency devaluation in 2015.

Trigger point

Specific levels such as the yen at 150 may bring on turmoil on the scale of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, according to market veteran Jim O’Neill, previously the chief currency economist of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Others say the velocity of declines is more important than individual trigger points.

A rapid drop of the yen and yuan “can quickly become a ‘deadweight’ for other regional currencies”, said Aninda Mitra, the head of Asia macro and investment strategy at BNY Mellon Investment Management in Singapore. “Much further yuan depreciation could be more troubling from here for the rest of the region.”

Of course, there’s no certainty further losses in the yuan and yen will bring on a financial upheaval. Nations in the region are in a far stronger position than they were in the run-up to the Asian financial crisis on the late 1990s, having greater foreign-exchange reserves and less exposure to dollar borrowing. Still, there are pockets of risk.

“The most vulnerable currencies are those with the deficit current-account positions, such as the South Korean won, Philippine peso and, to a lesser extent, the Thai baht,” said Trang Thuy Le, a strategist at Macquarie Capital Ltd in Hong Kong. When the yuan and yen both fall, “the pressure can translate into dollar buying and hedging demand for those exposed to emerging-market currencies”, she said.

What to watch this week: 

  • Russia will publish industrial-production data on Wednesday after output has deteriorated rapidly in recent months under the pressure of international sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Bank of Thailand will announce a policy decision on the same day after raising interest rates in August for the first time in more than three years. Mexico’s central bank will review policy on Thursday, and India’s will follow on Friday.
  • China’s business surveys for September due on Friday will give the latest snapshot of the world’s second-biggest economy. Reports earlier in the week are likely to show China’s industrial profits sagged further, reducing resources for capital expenditure and hiring, according to Bloomberg Economics.
  • Friday will also see jobless numbers from Brazil and South Korean industrial production.