‘Time is right’ for coordinated response to Asian currency woes: Nomura

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A man counts Indonesian rupiah banknotes in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. 

Southeast Asian countries that are burning through their foreign exchange reserves can turn to a regional safety net — known as the Chiang Mai Initiative — if their positions deteriorate, analysts said last week.

The CMI was created after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It’s designed to give the “ASEAN Plus 3” bloc — comprising 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea — an alternative source of foreign currency in case of liquidity problems.

Under the agreement, signatory countries can withdraw an agreed amount of funds from a $240 billion liquidity pool to help bolster their foreign reserves through currency swap agreements with Japan, China and South Korea.

With their high levels of external debt, countries such as Indonesia, India and the Philippines are the most likely candidates to tap liquidity from either bilateral currency swap agreements or through the CMI.

But doing so could fuel market suspicions that deeper problems lie beneath the surface. Such a “stigma problem,” as Japanese bank Nomura described in a recent report, necessitates a “collective, coordinated” approach.

“Despite having been established several years ago, these financing arrangements have not yet been tapped or activated when external shocks occurred, such as the 2013 taper tantrum,” Nomura strategists led by Rob Subbaraman wrote in a report published on Sept. 14.

The 2013 taper tantrum occurred after the U.S. Federal Reserve first signaled to the markets that the central bank’s massive liquidity program was coming to an end, which resulted in a massive sell-off in both stocks and bonds.

“In our view, one major reason is the stigma attached to seeking external help during periods of stress and the domestic political ramifications, not to mention the risk that markets may take such a request as a sign that ‘things must be really bad’,” the analysts noted.

‘Collective, coordinated response’

To limit any market fallout, “a well-coordinated, publicly announced approach would likely be better received if some sort of official joint statements were made in a regional forum, complimented by respective countries making their own announcements to their constituents,” the Nomura report said.

“We believe the time is right for Asia’s policymakers to start considering a collective, coordinated policy response should the depreciation of currencies in Indonesia, India and the Philippines intensify from here,” it said.

Nomura said there were a number of multi-lateral regional events where a collective response could be discussed and agreed. Examples include the ASEAN Summit, the East Asia Summit in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Papua New Guinea, the latter two taking place in November.

Not yet critical

Indonesia’s foreign exchange reserves slipped around $400 million in August to $117.9 billion, Bank Indonesia said in September as the central bank intervened to defend the rupiah which has has lost around 9 percent of its value so far this year.

The end-August reserves level, sufficient to meet 6.8 months of imports, “remained adequate as they will be supported by our confidence in stability, better economic prospect and positive export performance,” the central bank said in a statement.

From February until August, the reserves had declined $14.1 billion.

Some strategists say the reserve situation in India, Indonesia and the Philippines may not be at a critical stage yet.

Asked if the CMI might be a viable solution for these emerging economies, Tony Nash of forecasting firm Complete Intelligence said: “It’s possible.”

“The Chiang Mai Initiative comes up in conversation every few years and this seems about the right timing for someone to bring it up,” he told CNBC. “Usually, it’s economists using it as a solution in search of a problem. I haven’t heard people talking about it, but sure, it’s a possible solution, although it’d likely have to be pretty bad before it’s activated.”

“I suspect we are not there yet. Almost all across ASEAN, forex reserves cover is still quite adequate,” Divya Devesh, a currency strategist from Standard Chartered Bank, added.

Sri Jegarajah


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