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The Asian Financial Crisis 20 years on

In the four years between 1993 and 1996 the tiger economies of Asia led the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth and stock market returns as foreign and local investors piled in and embraced the opportunity.

In the four years between 1993 and 1996 the tiger economies of Asia led the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth and stock market returns as foreign and local investors piled in and embraced the opportunity. But trouble was brewing and Thailand was the canary in the coal mine. Strong growth was being funded by ever increasing levels of debt and with offshore interest rates far more attractive than those available at home, US dollars became the funding currency of choice.

While currencies remained pegged to the US dollar risks were minimal but as a growing trade and current account deficit and rising inflation led to increasing overvaluation of the Thai Baht, speculation grew and short-term money started to move out of the Thai currency.

In July 1997, after a futile attempt to stem the outflow, the Thai central bank removed the peg triggering an immediate 25% fall in the currency - by the end of the year it had lost half of its value. The impact on the economy was devastating. Interest rates initially spiked making dollar debt significantly more expensive. Loans started defaulting, peaking at almost 50% of total loans in 1999. The figures reflect the severity of the downturn: GDP took five years to return to pre-crisis levels, consumption – the use of good and services by households - was four years, and private sector loan growth only returned to positive territory in 2002.

Although Thailand was the trigger, the ticking time bomb of unhedged foreign currency debt and a  prolonged period of over-exuberance prevailed across all of South East Asia.  The Philippines and Malaysia were also significantly impacted but the most significant downturn occurred in Indonesia, which, although running a current account deficit only half the size of Thailand, saw its currency go from 2000 rupiah to the US dollar to 16000, and bank loan books fill up with defaulting loans.

Contagion and a severe lack of confidence dented the whole region and although Hong Kong managed to hold on to its peg to the US dollar, a prolonged period of high interest rates and slower growth resulted in a 40% fall in residential property prices and a deflationary period that took many years to recover from. Even South Korea, which was the 11th largest global economy at the time, had to call in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as interest rates ballooned and the currency weakened.

The recovery, which on average took more than 5 years, was supervised by stringent IMF requirements and has put Asian economies on a much firmer footing. With a few exceptions Asian currencies are free floating, meaning their value is determined by the foreign exchange (forex) markets through supply and demand, and as a result they have much more flexibility to reflect domestic economic cycles ensuring that pressures don’t build. Current and trade accounts, with the exception of India and Indonesia, are now in surplus, with the practice of unhedged foreign borrowing all but ended. Short term foreign debt in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) nations has dramatically dropped from 160% to now less than 30%.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008 was borne out of exuberance in the West but not in the East and although Asian economies were impacted by the slowdown in global growth, Asian economic credibility was never called into question.

The only economy that is showing a worrying trend is China. A credit boom following the GFC has seen debt-to-GDP balloon from 160% in 2008 to 260% in 2017. The nature of this debt however is different from that accrued by South East Asian Countries in the late 1990’s. Firstly, most of the debt lies with state owned enterprises (SOEs) and is hence backed by the >$3tn worth of foreign exchange reserves, and most of it is denominated in renminbi. Secondly, although China operates a managed exchange rate regime against a basket of trading currencies, the capital account is closed which restricts the amount of speculative flows. Finally, a lot of the debt is owned by domestic institutions and is long term in nature which reduces the likelihood of enforced withdrawal leading to a liquidity crisis.

The impact of the Asian crisis lives long in the memory of Asian corporates. The days of rapid expansion and growth for the sake of growth have gone and been replaced by conservatism and a focus on cash flow and profitability. Corporate debt levels are at all-time lows while cashflow compares favourably to any other region of the world. Interestingly it is developed economies that are now showing the stresses Asia encountered and recovered from 20 years ago; Asia in comparison looks favourable.

1 Debt can be issued in a various currencies and because the value of these can shift around, hedging is process of protecting yourself against adverse movements, usually through the use of derivatives.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.