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Refugee Bonds’ Bangladesh Rohingya Crisis Bound

2017 October 9 by

With almost half of Myanmar’s one million Muslim Rohingya population already pouring into next-door Bangladesh by land and sea to flee military and Buddhist civilian attacks, host government prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League party have appealed to the international community for help in defraying the annual costs of the mass influx, estimated by a local economist at $800 million-$1 billion. The Rohingya have long fled their homes in Rakhine state, where they are denied citizenship, for South Asia including India and Pakistan as well as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and the refugees have both integrated into urban and rural cities and been isolated in separate camps and centers. Domestic budgets have largely absorbed the costs, and wealthier East Asia’s fiscal positions have left them in better shape to receive “boat people” waves not experienced since Indochina’s post war aftermath four decades ago, when global relief and resettlement agencies took joint publically-funded action. In the current crisis regional officials have no such mechanism for quick collective response but they could call on financial markets which have since developed, and conventional and Islamic-style sukuk bonds in particular promoted under the Asian Development Bank’s aegis, to promptly raise the billions of dollars needed in Bangladesh and elsewhere as specialized refugee instruments.

Bangladesh’s capital markets are “underdeveloped,” according to the IMF’s June Article IV report, and its external sovereign bond and stock market skidded with the displaced person arrival, from a 5% MSCI frontier index gain through August. No facilities or supplies were in place to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya amid the already poor physical and social infrastructure even though the country has graduated to lower middle-income status with per capita income at over $1500 now surpassing Pakistan’s, as touted in an Economist magazine article. Despite recent monsoon rains which again claimed hundreds of lives and vast crop land, GDP growth is projected again this fiscal year at 7% as textile exports and Gulf remittances regain double digit increases. In July and August they each were up 15% to almost $7 billion and $13 billion respectively, although garment prices dropped overall and the remittance number was skewed by the Eid holiday celebration. Private investment remains weak at under 25% of GDP, and a bill has been submitted to parliament to create a “one stop shop” to lift Bangladesh from the bottom of World Bank Doing Business ranking.

Inflation approaches the economic growth pace with higher food prices, but the central bank has kept the benchmark interest rate on hold. The budget deficit forecast is 5%, but a new value added tax has been introduced and public debt is stable at 40% of GDP. The current account is roughly in balance and international reserves over $30 billion cover nine months of imports, but a proposed sovereign wealth fund would initially take $2 billion from the pool. The exchange rate has softened slightly in nominal terms to above 80/dollar with selective official intervention, and the IMF urged more flexibility as a priority Article IV recommendation.

Banking sector problems, with a 25% bad loan ratio at state-owned units with one-quarter of system assets, are a major chokehold on broader financial market development. Capital adequacy is low at 6%, and it is still tied up in stock market investment after a crash five years ago prompted regulators to order reduced exposure. Government influence harms bank performance, and the Capital Market Master Plan adopted in the wake of the 2011 crash has a large unfinished agenda, including on mutual and pension fund and corporate bond launch, the IMF survey admonished.

Bangladesh may be limited in designing and supporting refugee bond issuance on its own, but could turn to the Asian Development Bank for credit enhancement and technical assistance and also team with neighbors like Malaysia in particular. It hosts a sizable Rohingya contingent and is the biggest sukuk center, accounting for over half the $60 billion total worldwide through the first half, and Prime Minister Najib Rezak raised the issue as a financial and security challenge during his White House visit last week. The Middle East with its Syrian displaced population has shown interest in such capital market innovation, but Asia with its decades of experience with bond promotion and greater depth could commission immediate pilot projects corresponding to Rohingya crisis urgency.




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Pakistan’s Graduation Gravity Spell

2017 September 18 by

Pakistan shares continued at the bottom of the Asian pack, with an over 10% loss through August, as a typical pattern of post-upgrade retrenchment after rejoining the core MSCI Index combined with extended bouts of political and geopolitical and balance of payments instability resurrecting IMF qualms after the first-ever program completion in 2016. Recent graduates from the frontier to main gauges Qatar and the UAE telegraphed the correction path after large run-ups in advance as they suffered their own diplomatic and fiscal setbacks, but Pakistan’s were more pronounced in view of its lower per capita income developing country status. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a nominal economic reformer, was forced to resign ahead of 2018 elections after a military-influenced court investigation to face corruption charges, although his party, now led by his brother, continues with a parliamentary majority.

The opposition PTI, headed by former cricket champion Imran Khan, has criticized the Sharif family’s dubious wealth accumulation but not yet offered a convincing program to sway the establishment business and financial communities, which increasingly look to Asian alongside traditional Western partnerships again eroded by US President Trump’s rhetorical hard line in his new Afghanistan strategy. With these elements unfolding, the currency dropped to a record 105 low against the dollar, as the central bank and finance ministry accused each other of mismanagement, underscoring lingering policy and performance doubts highlighted by the IMF’s July Article IV report. The new Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, denied formal devaluation but will reduce “unnecessary” imports to cushion international reserves, down one-quarter to $14 billion from last October’s peak.

The Fund’s retrospective of the 2013-16 arrangement praised macroeconomic and reform steps, but pointed out fresh risks alongside “long-standing” fiscal and current account deficit, public domestic and external debt, financial and power sector, and poverty and unemployment challenges. GDP growth this fiscal year will be above 5% due largely to China’s Economic Corridor infrastructure building, while remittances from the Persian Gulf in particular are “sluggish.” With higher food costs from lagging agriculture headline inflation is also heading toward 5%, and the central bank may have to shift its monetary stance from accommodation to tightening, especially with additional exchange rate pressure. The fiscal position remains precarious, with the gap running below target at 4% of GDP on flagging tax collection amid widespread evasion, which was a chief priority under the Fund facility. The trade deficit was a record $40 billion for the year ending in June, with reserves just over three months imports as the central bank’s foreign exchange derivative obligations nearly doubled to $3.5 billion. Bank private credit is up almost 15% annually but gross bad loans are 10% of the total, as small banks are undercapitalized and deposit insurance is just about to launch.

State power company arrears built up again to the equivalent of 1% of GDP in the first half of the fiscal year, as the stock exchange privatization of distributors, designed to improve governance and payment, remains delayed. With the chronic energy crunch natural gas supplies also languish with 10% losses, above international standards according to experts. Pakistan was among the top 10 gainers in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking, as it rose four spots to 144 out of 190 countries with records automation and a new secured transactions law. However, the IMF’s July evaluation urged overdue labor market, one-stop investment shop, property registration, and commercial arbitration changes. It also noted a continued poor score at 116 on the companion Transparency International list, with corruption, money laundering and hidden assets found to be common practices. Financial inclusion also lagged toward low income female and rural populations in particular, as a strategy to widen conventional and Islamic banking access through end-decade is at an early stage.

External debt was almost $60 billion at end-March, with $40 billion in bilateral and multilateral loans as sovereign borrowing is increasingly on commercial terms through Eurobonds and China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar ruled out IMF return urged by chambers of commerce as another $500 million-$1billion global bond is under preparation for the coming months, However credit default swap spreads have recently risen 100 basis points, signaling a likely ratings downgrade and yield premium that could indefinitely scuttle both Fund program and MSCI index graduation ambitions.











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Asia Local Bonds’ Unheeded Unstable Equilibrium

2017 August 23 by

The latest edition of the Asian Development Banks’s local currency bond publication, covering nine emerging markets for the full first quarter through May, cited greater stability with reduced spreads and foreign capital inflows as it cautioned  about immediate global liquidity and cyber-attack risks. It noted an issuance slowdown from China in particular on its deleveraging campaign, with the mainland accounting for 70% of the $10.5 trillion government and corporate instruments outstanding. Indonesia in contrast experienced an overseas ownership leap to almost 40% of the total with a Standard & Poor’s ratings upgrade. On the two decade anniversary of the crisis which launched the Asia Bond Market Initiative with the Bank’s online monitoring and regular technical assistance, the reference also looked at the 2008 and 2013 Taper Tantrum spasms to examine the empirical record of domestic bond market deepening. The evidence pointed to less exposure to currency and maturity mismatch, but did not rule out future troubles on economic, monetary and business cycle turns which could also deflate this traditional “spare tire” supplementing bank loans and stock markets.

The ADB noted that gradual monetary policy normalization in the US, EU and Japan could “impinge” on East Asia’s financial markets. The Federal Reserve has ended quantitative easing and nudged interest rates marginally, and may begin to unwind the $4 trillion portfolio of Treasury, mortgage-backed and agency securities bought for commercial fixed income support the past decade. This rolling off is designed as a multi-year process implying that short-term Asian spillover should be “manageable,” but leverage has accumulated over a prolonged loose money period that could pose danger especially if the Eurozone also pares bond purchases. Global GDP growth forecasts have picked up, with developing Asia to expand 5.7% this year and next, but long-term yields have started to rise and investors have only recently “rediscovered” emerging market assets with fleeting confidence. Moody’s downgraded China’s sovereign rating from Aa3 to A1 at the same time, and continued US rate lifts will “adversely affect” heavy borrower company balance sheets in particular. Yields could spike and trading volumes sink as in 2013, and the consecutive Bangladesh central bank and Wanna Cry cyber- crimes in 2016 and 2017 revealed additional systemic weaknesses across banks and capital market intermediaries compromising safe-asset transactions, according to the review.

First quarter bond market growth was only 1% from 2.5% in the previous one, with China’s local government and corporate placement the main drags. By comparison, Korea’s number two near $2 trillion market was up 1.5% on Treasury bond front-loading for budget stimulus. Thailand and Malaysia each rose 3%, with the latter’s Islamic-style sukuk over half the total. Hong Kong and Singapore were roughly tied at the $250 billion activity range, while Indonesia’s surged 4.5% in the period to close to $175 billion. The Philippines and Vietnam had respective $100 billion and $45 billion totals as the smallest in the region. The annual growth rate was 13% for the quarter, with the government-corporate split at 65%-35% and local currency bonds approaching 70% of GDP.

Foreign ownership strengthened everywhere outside Malaysia, where the share dropped 6 points to 25%, through March, although the trend there also stabilized in April with resumed capital inflows. Investors remain wary after the central bank’s surprise ban on non-deliverable ringgit forwards to hedge positions, and the continuing drip from the 1MDB fund scandal with a repayment to Abu Dhabi creditors past the due date. Thailand’s international participation hit 15% on opposite news as a healthy current account surplus and reserves buoyed sentiment despite lingering political stalemate, as ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra prepared to face trial for alleged rice subsidy abuse. Cross-border issuance within East Asia was a paltry $2.3 billion for the quarter, led by China, followed by Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, and a fraction of the $105 billion G-3 currency amount from January-April on good worldwide appetite. Inflation and interest rates were largely steady through May, as countries tweaked laws and regulations to solidify the bond market ballast shown by the ADB’s statistical regressions to offset exchange rate depreciation pressure. China and Thailand announced new rules for low-grade and unrated bonds, and Malaysia and Vietnam authorized short-selling, but after 15 years local bond development is in search of a long-haul catalyst that can apply with the same sense of crisis urgency to overcome potentially imminent global bond bruising.




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China’s Party Pep Talk Preening

2017 August 16 by

Chinese shares were up over 30 percent on the MSCI index through July, as solid economic data and financial work conference rhetoric overcame US trade retaliation threats following lack of agreement to cut steel exports in particular during the bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington. Second quarter GDP growth was 6.9 percent, with majority contributions from consumption and services, as infrastructure investment rose 20 percent and fixed-asset outlays at half that pace. Inflation was steady at 1.5 percent with money supply expansion continuing to drop to 9.5 percent on shadow banking and international conglomerate- centered deleveraging. The Yuan appreciated 3 percent against the dollar as the central bank hailed “market confidence” and Fitch Ratings pointed to a 1 percent jump in foreign ownership under the new Bond Connect. President Xi called for improved currency trading and internationalization efforts at the annual financial sector Party forum, ahead of the landmark October Congress which will formalize his second term. Reserves have returned to the $3 trillion mark, and banks have been net foreign exchange sellers the past year, as Chinese tourist spending abroad increased 2.5 percent in 2016. The Economist’s “Big Mac Index” puts RMB undervaluation at 45 percent, but less subjective expert readings have it in the 5 percent range.  Politburo statements at the July meeting focused on debt risks, including in local governments and households, with the latter soon to reach 50 percent of GDP. Ratings agencies reinforced caution, with S&P keeping a long-term negative outlook due to runaway credit despite the high savings rate. A financial stability council was formed to coordinate regulation and urgent action through the central bank, which ordered lower wealth management product returns as they approached a 2-year top toward 5 percent. It will be on the lookout for capital and insurance market “abnormal fluctuations” as well as real estate froth and the warning helped prompt a 17 percent loss on the small company tech-heavy ChiNext.

All big state enterprises will be converted to joint stock ownership by year-end but private capital participation has not yet been defined. Profits were up 15 percent among a cross-section of 100 firms in the first half, but company leverage averages over 150 percent, according to official statistics. The government has introduced curbs on further lending to aggressive overseas acquirers like HNA and Dalian Wanda to set an example as it consolidates holdings, most recently in the shipping industry, with coal and heavy machinery deals in the pipeline. Property investment jumped 8.5 percent at mid-year and the 70-city price index again was higher in June. President Xi may leave the sector alone until his reelection, but he has tightened controls over local government borrowing with phase out of financing vehicles, with large real estate assets, in favor of more disciplined bond issuance. He may elevate anti-corruption chief Wang Quishan, who oversaw the biggest investment trust bankruptcy during the 1990’s financial crisis with foreign creditors, to premier in a sign that top-level restructuring expertise and vision may again be pressing. His latest target was a party boss in Chongqing who may now be eliminated from standing committee consideration, as gaming center Macau continues to suffer from the anti-capital flight and money laundering purge.


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Asean’s Ambivalent Crisis Anniversary Anchors

2017 July 27 by

The two-decade anniversary of the Asian financial crisis originating in Thailand and quickly spreading to Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere was marked quietly by regional investors and officials, as they acknowledged comeback since that grim period but were wary of new debt and capital flow risks despite healthy first half securities market results. The IMF, which extended $40 billion in rescue programs, noted the pain from broken currency pegs and widespread corporate bankruptcy and average GDP growth at roughly half the previous 7-8% pace, while commending foreign reserve accumulation and financial sector cleanup and regulatory strengthening. The episode prompted local currency bond market expansion under the auspices of the Asian Development Bank, and bilateral and multilateral swap line arrangements with the Chiang Mai Initiative. Franklin Templeton emerging market chief Mark Mobius commented about sovereign and business “harsh lessons” from untenable debt loads at the same time that the Bruegel think tank tracking these trends put ASEAN corporate leverage at 100% in terms of total liabilities to equity, over half of it short term. The Chinese ratio is more extreme at 175%, and although ASEAN’s position is “sound” the Brussels-based monitor stipulated that trade and funding shocks could reprise crisis-era qualms.

Thailand’s ruling generals also hesitated to cite the occasion as a possible reminder of democracy loss since, as its MSCI Index rose 9% through the first half. Since passage of a constitutional referendum a year ago, future election plans remain murky and the army’s self-proclaimed reputation for integrity was dented by a major human-trafficking scandal involving neighboring Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees. The new King has now assumed full control of the estimated $30 billion Crown Property portfolio, which includes stakes in blue-chip stock exchange listings Siam Cement and Siam Commercial Bank. Growth was over 3% in the first quarter on decent consumption, but public investment up 10% was the main driver. Exports rose 7% from January-May, and the central bank recently intervened to curb the baht’s 5% appreciation against the dollar to safeguard gains. The benchmark 1.5% policy rate otherwise is on hold under a loose monetary stance with negligible inflation. The trade surplus recovered to almost $1 billion in May, but consumer confidence is still low with a 75 reading, under the positive 100 threshold, and the manufacturing PMI is barely expansionary. Poor farm prices are hitting agriculture, at one-tenth of GDP, as foreign direct investment there continues under 1% of the total with lingering restrictions.

Indonesian stocks advanced almost 15% through mid-year despite a political scandal around the parliamentary speaker, from the Golkar Party founded in President Suharto’s time and a close ally of the incumbent Joko Widodo. Growth is humming at 5%, below the President’s 7% promise, and fiscal space is limited nearing the 3% of GDP deficit cap. With rising food and energy costs, inflation is 4.5% and the central bank has paused its easing cycle. Credit growth is only in single digits as banks turn wary of private sector debt, which is half the $330 billion external total. Former Bank of Indonesia chief Djiwandono, interviewed about the Asian financial crash, expressed resumed concern over “scary leverage.” Foreign investors have poured $7.5 billion into rupiah notes earning 9%, but Fitch Ratings was cautious about the doubled bad loan ratio at 3% since the 2013 “taper tantrum,” persistent 2% current account gap, and stalled reform momentum from “religious frictions.”

In Malaysia, where the MSCI Index climbed 12%, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was back in the news not just for crisis retrospective but possible renewed candidacy for the post against under a startup political party against successor Najib Rezak, still stalked by the multi-billion dollar IMDB fund diversion under investigation on three continents. A separate commission of inquiry was established in July to review questionable central bank foreign exchange transactions in the 1980s and 1990s in a counterattack against Dr. Mahathir’s tenure. In advance of likely elections, GDP growth was 5% in the second quarter, and the 2018 budget offered new tax incentives for high-tech innovation. China pledged $80 billion in medium-term projects under the Belt and Road scheme, but household spending remains squeezed by 80% of GDP debt. Inflation was 3.5% in June, and the central bank overnight rate stayed 3% with the currency down 7% the past year despite a recent surge, reflecting the dichotomy in ASEAN’s post-crisis 1998, 2008, and perhaps 2018 investor haven pitch.


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China’s Index Inclusion Indentations

2017 May 13 by

China’s respective main and A share categories were up 15 percent and 5 percent respectively on the MSCI Index, as the provider is poised to marginally add the latter to the country’s 28 percent global weighting with access upgrades from the Hong Kong Connect experiment. Big houses like Black Rock consulted for the June decision have endorsed progress to begin incorporation, despite existing underweight positions and continued reservations over banking system and currency paths. PMI readings were barely over 50 in April, as the IMF reported that RMB assets were only 1 percent of combined central bank reserves after SDR entry and Fitch Ratings cited internationalization stall the past two years with depreciation and capital outflow streaks. Cross-border bank transfer rules requiring inward and outward matching were lifted, but the state foreign exchange body indicated that onshore trading must deepen and stabilize before broader controls are eased. In March bank hard currency sales were the lowest in six months, but major policy changes will likely be suspended until after the next Communist Party Congress due to extend President Xi’s tenure. He and US President Trump also have been in contact over the North Korea nuclear crisis, but harsher trade and financial moves against ally Pyongyang may in the same vein be postponed until after the leadership conclave. Consensus GDP growth estimates are between 6.5-6.7 percent for the rest of the year, and the President recently criticized slow government enterprise restructuring, as planners previewed statistical  overhauls and tax cuts.

The benchmark 7-day repo rate passed 3 percent as the central bank embraced “neutral and prudent” monetary policy in view of “alarming” leverage which provoked another shadow banking crackdown in a flurry of risk management edicts. Bond and equity flows though entrusted investments, conservatively estimated at $1 trillion and commingled with wealth management products, could be caught in the net. The Shanghai stock market had the biggest daily loss this year as the securities regulator joined in to punish irregularities “without mercy.” Insurance will not be spared from coordinated stricter oversight and reporting as assets more than doubled in 5 years to RMB 15 trillion in 2016, and policy holders channeled money offshore to evade restrictions. In April China Minsheng bank was snared in an unguaranteed high-yield offering scandal and trust companies were explicitly order to slash property exposure as credit overall rose 25 percent to the sector in the first quarter. Standard bond issuance in social financing also attracted supervisory scrutiny with banks buying half of all dollar bonds for potential currency mismatch, and the junk category accounting for $12 billion through April compared with $2 billion in 2016. According to JP Morgan data, Chinese corporates have represented two-thirds of global activity, and yields have narrowed toward onshore ones with buoyant conditions and double-digit profit jumps from last year’s nadir. The Hong Kong Bond Connect is scheduled for launch in the coming months to further meld the investor base, as RMB deposits in the enclave otherwise dip to half the 2014 peak, and the local dollar continues to weaken against the greenback. However first quarter mortgage credit soared 80 percent on an annual basis with private home prices again at a record triggering index indigestion.


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India’s Harvard Yard Weeding Waft

2017 March 25 by

Indian shares up 10 percent through March were further buoyed by 7 percent last quarter growth defying demonetization gloom and Prime Minister Modi’s strong party showings in state elections cast as a referendum on his personal popularity and economic reform policies. He savaged the downbeat forecasts “from Harvard and Oxford” experts with banknote confiscation targeting illegal funds, and described the continued expansion as vindication for hard work, even though statistics do not capture the estimated 40 percent informal sector hardest hit by the physical cash squeeze. A good monsoon and civil servant salary hike contributed, but real estate and financial services slowed and government spending was the main manufacturing driver with capacity utilization still under 75 percent. However the reading is not final and may undergo downward revisions following the pattern of previous quarters recalculated with changing methodologies challenged by international statisticians. The Prime Minister’s runaway victory in Uttar Pradesh in particular was interpreted as satisfaction with his business-friendly agenda, although average voters focused more on pro-poor rhetoric and the coalition’s financial inclusion platform. Officials continue to sweep bank accounts for evidence of “black money” despite caution by top economic advisers that the crackdown risks overkill. On the tax question, companies and wealthy individuals are already unnerved by Finance Minister Jaitley’s admission that the national goods and services levy rollout due this summer has encountered “teething problems” and may be delayed as states reconsider their own revenue mix. He also panned the “bad bank” proposal to handle the 15 percent NPL load at state-owned lenders as a non-starter since it could jeopardize the 3 percent of GDP budget deficit goal. The central bank is considering faster write-off rules, but corporate credit is flat and many big property borrowers are in trouble after the demonetization fallout. Consumer lines were increasing 20 percent annually and are likely to suffer under tighter classification standards and more lenient bankruptcy treatment for individuals than companies in a new code. The process currently takes 4-5 years, and many politically connected debtors are protected from harsh action. Despite the administration’s anti-corruption vow, the former head of defunct airline Kingfisher, a well-known Delhi insider, fled to luxury exile in London after accusations of defrauding banks and shareholders.

Pakistan national elections will also be held for the first time in two decades in the coming months, with the stock market slated to reenter the core MSCI group on a 50 percent in local terms the past year. GDP growth is 5 percent and daily power cuts have halved after completing an IMF program. On infrastructure a $1 billion road between Islamabad and Lahore has opened and Prime Minister Sharif has negotiated $40 billion in Chinese investment under the One Belt One Road scheme. Consumer goods listings have enjoyed a run, with multinationals like Nestle doubling sales and banks are in the process of more privatization. In the business capital Karachi kidnapping and terrorism incidents may have abated, and the army has claimed rebel suppression in the Federal Autonomous Areas unable to be independently verified. The Prime Minister and US President Trump reportedly have exchanged cordial phone calls, despite the latter’s fulminations against the political and commercial elite with the Sharif family a charter member.


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Mongolia Struggles With Financial Instability (Asia Times)

2017 March 13 by

Mongolian shares rose 4 percent into March according to Bloomberg’s top company index, after the IMF extended another multi-year bailout for $440 million which can unlock an immediate additional $3 billion from bilateral and multilateral partners. China, which receives 90% of mineral exports, will bolster a $2 billion currency swap as part of the package, coming just five years after expiration of 2009’s post-crisis program. With its 85% of GDP public debt, the country faced imminent default on an almost $600 million Development Bank external bond repayment due this month, as headline mining ventures unraveled over investor commercial disputes and alleged corruption  and political favoritism. The new government in power led by the Mongolian People’s Party has promised to restore economic stability and creditworthiness through the Fund plan and more business-friendly policies, but protracted banking system and fiscal cleanups may exhaust multinational company and average citizen patience.

The Fund announcement described long-term agriculture and tourism diversification scope alongside natural resource wealth, but criticized “ineffective” spending designed to offset commodity price and foreign direct investment collapse. GDP growth “stagnated” at 1% in 2016, with high debt and low international reserves, which dipped to $1 billion or four months imports, in its wake. The currency lost one-quarter its value against the dollar, and a diplomatic spat with Beijing over hosting the Dalai Lama resulted in administrative and tariff penalties at year-end.  The population went into the harsh winter with livestock under further claim as officials requested donations to help pay off overseas obligations. Nature was unusually unkind as disease ravaged rare antelope and drew appeals from global conservation groups.

In the mining sector, which accounts for one-quarter of output, the long impasse was ended in principle over royalties and management control at copper venture Oyu Tolgoi, operated by cross-border giant Rio Tinto. However the timetable for the project’s second phase has slipped, and private funding initially secured may have to be renegotiated with rising world interest rates. The fate of a $400 million sale of a Russian stake in state company Erdenet to a politically-connected Mongolian investor by the previous government is even more precarious. The parliament annulled the deal in February and called for renationalization amid charges the specialist Trade Development may have been an illegal hidden backer. President Elbegdorj complained the action would scare away foreign capital, but acknowledged the need to pursue investigations.

The financial system has been a shambles since independence starting with the central bank, which has been euphemistically engaged in “quasi-fiscal” activities including recent support for $800 million in cheap mortgage loans which had sustained household consumption. The Development Bank DBM, which provides one-quarter of total credit, carries an unconditional sovereign guarantee for its 2012 external bond as ratings agencies assign the issuers near-default status. The Bank’s former chief executive was arrested last year for abuse of the proceeds, and the latest Fund arrangement mandates a split between the government and lender, which is be run commercially according to a new law. A separate statute will overhaul the central bank’s governance and enforcement powers, and it is responsible for overseeing recapitalization and restructuring and shoring up the deposit insurance scheme after a comprehensive industry assessment.

Ordinary citizens have organized in anger against DBM, which they accuse of covering up losses and management failure at state coal producer Erdenes TT, whose non-voting shares were distributed to the public in 2010. The Mongolian Stock Exchange was considered a candidate to join MSCI’s frontier market roster early in the 2012-14 boom period, when cooperation pacts were forged with Hong Kong and London counterparts, but actual trading has stayed quiet in a handful of shares alongside hundreds of nominal  listings  and an absent local income market. With fiscal consolidation a “key priority” to reduce the 15% of GDP deficit, privatization offerings could inject momentum, but the record to date has been disappointing.

The IMF believes such overdue policy and reform steps can usher in 8% growth and $4 billion in reserves, comparable to the 2012 peak, by end-decade. It predicts mining diversification and solar and wind power has already drawn investors like Japan’s Softbank, and fashion, information and health service have started to appear. However Mongolia also owes $2 billion in external debt before that deadline and without bank and bondholder workouts at home and abroad, it may again fall into the pit.


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Asia’s Stray Economic Strategy Strictures

2017 February 20 by

A fifteen member Center for Strategic and International Studies panel headed by a former US Trade Representative issued a report to guide Asia-Pacific economic policy in the new administration after a year and a half of preparation and heavy emphasis on TPP ratification if the pact is redrawn. Infrastructure and technology are major pushes and it stresses China reciprocity and an updated architecture through the Asian Development Bank and APEC forum and dedicated staff at the White House National Security Council. The geography will account for 40 percent of global GDP by 2030, and already takes almost 30 percent of US exports for 3.5 million. Asia’s direct investment total here is over $550 billion, with the Chinese deal pace tripling in 2016 from the previous year. The ASEAN bloc alone has 600 million customers and $2.5 trillion in output as an unrealized prospect, despite “governance challenges,” the review stipulates. It laments Washington’s “distracted and inconsistent” approach the past 15 years resulting in botched diplomacy toward the Asian Infrastructure Bank’s launch as a recent example, which should have been embraced for its organizational and ownership contributions. TPP withdrawal may be “politically expedient” after the election result but rule-based order should be a linchpin of future agreement to be preserved as a goal. Services and energy are two sectors that could form specialized pacts. The former include health care, transport, information processing and finance. China and India will drive alternative fuel expansion and technology like wind and solar for decades, but the analysis points out that the era of double-digit growth is likely over across the region amid mounting debt and continued protectionism. Japan and South Korea have aging demographics, while low-income countries grapple with lagging corruption rule of law, and environment-natural resource indicators.

APEC, with Latin American participation, was founded almost 30 years ago and managed an information technology accord in 2015 but was largely overshadowed by TPP negotiations the past decade and is “amorphous” in the report’s view. The Trump team should stay engaged with the diversity of competing arrangements like the proposed ASEAN+6 free trade zone, as no single framework is likely to prevail. It should promote balanced and sustainable growth as recognized at the post-2008 crisis G-20 summit, greater American company access and entry, and trans-pacific commercial integration. Health pandemics and natural disasters can be tackled jointly by public and private sector representatives. The paper advises President Trump to articulate a vision in an early dedicated speech which can remedy TPP’s structural and political drawbacks with another market-opening campaign. Chinese intellectual property and cyber theft issues should be emphasized bilaterally in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and informal channels at the top of White House coordination responsibility. Connectivity should be the main infrastructure thrust with US firm superiority, and private capital should be enlisted alongside official lending programs including Beijing’s One Belt-One Road. Congress and the Executive Branch should hire and train more Asia-focused staff and economists should be placed at the highest foreign policy making level, in contrast with the initial Administration preference for defense and public relations heavyweights potentially obscuring this background.


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India’s Relentless Cash Squeeze Cascade

2017 February 13 by

After a 2016 5 percent loss on the MSCI Index Indian shares were further saddled with GDP growth slipping below 7 percent, with the December PMI at a 3-year low under 50 due to the immediate demonetization effect of eliminating high-denomination banknotes representing 85 percent of currency in circulation. Auto sales as a consumption proxy were down double-digits, and according to small business surveys thousands of firms shut their doors or shed a large worker share. Housing transaction dropped 45 percent in the last quarter with a “complete standstill” described by industry experts, as Prime Minister Modi promised additional steps against “black money” ahead of a big March state election round which shows the opposition BJP likely to regain support in early opinion results. The Prime Minister’s image was dented by appearing to mimic the pose and dress of independence hero Gandhi in a public photo, and the supreme court head stepped down after months of mutual recriminations between the judiciary and ruling coalition lawmakers over respective powers, especially concerning boundaries between government and religion. Consumer inflation has been a bright spot and is under 5 percent with food price production, setting the stage for rate easing as banks are also flush with liquidity from rupee return allowing them to cut borrowing costs. However they are still contending with an estimated 15 percent bad loan ratio under stricter classification standards, which the new central bank head has signaled for possible review since the monetary reform he was not informed or consulted about in advance. Although an experienced technocrat he has come under criticism for official subservience to the sudden decision and failing to stress the lack of alternative electronic payment access for rural and poor savers. Conspiracy theorists have posited that his predecessor Rajan may have been removed as a potential impediment, and foreign investors who have been overweight local bonds are also upset quotas remain in place without the same drive to join JP Morgan’s GBI-EM index.

In Indonesia, where the MSCI gained 15 percent last year, that bank was suspended from primary dealing after negative research comments Finance Minister Indrawati called “irresponsible.” She insisted that international investment houses adopt new conflict of interest and transparency practices against “instability” while insisting they were not censorship. JP Morgan later upgraded its recommendations as growth and fiscal policy stay largely on track, and foreign ownership of domestic government debt slid just slightly from one-third after the actions. However the Minister’s initial warm welcome may have evaporated after her credibility also suffered from overestimating the tax amnesty take.  Korean shares, after a 5 percent jump in 2016, are under their own crisis microscope after presidential impeachment and chaebol executive arrests in an influence-peddling scandal which have widened valuation discounts to regional peers. The won has shed 8.5 percent the past quarter to help revive exports, although the 2017 GDP growth forecast was lowered from 3 percent to 2.5 percent. The next President will be expected to more effectively attack crony capitalism against the backdrop of solid current account and budget positions, although Trump administration military and trade pushback could be another existential possible cross-border clash.




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