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The Rohingya Crisis’ Regional Doubt Reverberations

2017 November 29 by

While President Trump’s maiden Asia voyage focused on the headline themes of bilateral China relations, North Korea standoff, and trade pacts, the unrelenting Rohingya flight from Myanmar into Bangladesh, with over half the estimated 1 million population exiting so far, was also on the diplomatic and economic agenda as a long-festering regional issue. Washington is reconsidering   easing of commercial and financial sanctions late in the Obama administration as refugee advocacy and human rights groups press the State and Treasury Departments for renewed punishment of documented military abuses under the nominal civilian leadership of Nobel laureate Aunt Sang Sue Kyiv. Natural resources under army-controlled companies remain a taboo area subject to strict reporting requirements, but US investors began to join European and Asian counterparts in exploring consumer and real estate ventures in particular. Private equity firms tentatively moved into position for promised stock exchange expansion and liberalization, after a trio of initial listings sparked new frontier market interest.

Despite another year of expected 6-7% GDP growth, these calculations are now indefinitely sidetracked with continued financial sector policy delay and inconsistency, compounded by international community condemnation of the reported Muslim expulsion campaign by the majority Buddhist population. The massive spillover into Bangladesh, following previous waves there and throughout South and East Asia, has raised investor questions about simmering ethnic and religious divides and long-term handling of the humanitarian turned economic development emergency. They come against the backdrop of MSCI stock market performance reverting to its pre-2008 peak, and preference turning to countries better equipped to sustain gains with inclusive business friendly outreach.

Bangladesh, up 6% on the MSCI frontier benchmark through October, won widespread acclaim for agreeing to host another 500,000 Rohingya crossing the border since August in addition to the 100,000 already in the Kutapalong refugee camp for decades. The move softened Sheikh Hasina’s reputation for intolerance toward the political opposition, as domestic supporters glorified her as the “mother of humanity.” She approached donors in Geneva for pledges to build the world’s biggest refugee facility, and her Finance Minister requested World Bank concessional loans at the October annual meeting, with hundreds of millions of dollars to be mobilized in the first phase. However Dhaka has severely restricted non-government organization education, health and housing provision and the refugees’ freedom of movement, including to work or to enroll in local schools. Food prices have jumped in the vicinity, with the arriving Rohingya denied permission to apply their agricultural skills.

On the subcontinent India and Pakistan have also absorbed large Rohingya communities. Shares in the former have been at the bottom of the MSCI core universe since their return, with a 25% loss through October after Prime Minister Sharif was ousted on corruption charges while staying at the helm of his Muslim League-Nawaz party. The Rohingya integrated into the majority population, but remain economically marginalized and may be at increased risk with the chance of another balance of payments crisis forcing IMF rescue, according to observers. The Chinese Economic Corridor has injected billions of dollars in infrastructure stimulus to prevent recession, but added external debt to the existing heavy load on more expensive commercial terms. India on the other hand recently threatened to expel 50,000 Rohingya on national security grounds, citing a possible repeat of the nascent rebel movement claimed by Myanmar’s military to justify its scorched earth tactics. However the stance also fits with the Hindu fundamentalism promoted by Prime Minister Modi and his allies, which was largely ignored by investors as growth was chugging along at 7%, but may now be seen as stoking communal tensions and swallowing reform oxygen with the slowdown to 5% and portfolio outflows.

Indonesia and Malaysia have been equity market laggards, with advances just above 10%, as the Rohingya question comes into play more prominently in relation to identity politics and economic access. The race for Jakarta governor was plagued by Muslim-Christian friction and Investment Minister Tom Lembong decried “rising tribalism” as religious activists insist President Jokowi take a tough line with Myanmar. In Malaysia officials unveiled a generous pre-election budget with growth exceeding projections at 5.5%, but their treatment of Rohingya refugees in detention centers is believed to be opposite and smother available job prospects key to transforming their plight to productive ends.


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Central Asia’s Prickly Business Reform Prize

2017 November 17 by

The 15th edition of the World Bank’s Doing Business report, which surveys tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, lawyers and accountants for on-the-ground insight into commercial and regulatory conditions across a dozen categories, showed Uzbekistan as one of the top ten reformers the past year among the 190 countries tracked. The favorable publicity was soon overshadowed by the fallout over an immigrant’s truck attack in New York City, but extended a record of top sub-regional performance as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia were also cited for annual strides. Kazakhstan’s number 36 ranking was just behind Russia, while Tajikistan was at the bottom of the pack in 123rd place. In the neighboring Caucuses Georgia is a perennial rule change frontrunner, and in the top 10 of the overall ease index led by advanced and big emerging economies New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark and Korea.

Uzbekistan’s new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev unleashed a reform wave after decades under the authoritarian control of Islam Karimov, including freeing the currency, and courted foreign investors at September’s UN General Assembly meeting. He spurred advances in half of the World Bank’s focus areas, such as a “turnkey” electricity connection at the state utility and faster construction permit approval. His government acknowledges short-term adjustment costs and recently admitted the longtime 7% growth target may not be reached. The International Monetary Fund reinforced this wariness in its companion economic update issued during the October annual meeting, as it listed “deep-rooted”  banking system, fiscal and monetary policy and private sector development weaknesses  offsetting  relative micro-level company progress.

In the 2016-17 reporting period, property rights strengthened in Kazakhstan with public disclosure of ownership around Almaty. In Mongolia a new movable property law went into effect allowing leases and titles as collateral to be entered into modern registries. Azerbaijan clarified corporate governance and transparency norms to include multiple board service, executive compensation, and formal independent audits. Kazakhstan’s stock market was a top 40% gainer on the MSCI frontier index through October, aided by expanded shareholder lawsuit scope for investor protection. Uzbekistan also introduced on-line tax payment, and Georgia further increased creditor insolvency power. Tajikistan, despite its ranking in the lower half of all countries, updated labor practice by raising minimum severance pay for dismissal and simplified business licensing. Azerbaijan’s banking crisis, where state giant IBA is in debt restructuring estimated to equal one-tenth of GDP as smaller competitors try to recapitalize, sparked a flurry of improvements in credit reporting and bankruptcy reorganization.

After 2.5% growth in 2016 another 1% pickup is forecast for Central Asia and the Caucuses this year and the medium term trend will be 4-4.5%, around half the early 2000s average, according to the IMF. Hydrocarbon exporters Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have stabilized with higher world prices and decent agriculture and construction backstops, but were urged to further diversify. Oil importers could see 4% growth in 2017 on Russia remittance rebound and boosted gold output in the Kyrgyz Republic. However financial sector damage lingers beyond Azerbaijan, as Kazakhstan merged the two largest banks and injected 4% of GDP this year, and Tajikistan’s government mounted a similar bailout. Consolidation has also taken place in Georgia in the face of steep bad loan ratios, while credit growth is flat or negative with the exception of Turkmenistan, where the rapid pace invites “future quality risks” in the Fund’s view. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan issued foreign debt to cover fiscal deficits, and despite drastic exchange rate adjustment, such as with Uzbekistan’s official and parallel rate unification where the som lost half its value against the dollar, the region’s current account gap will improve only “gradually” from last year’s 6.5% of GDP. With the currency no longer the monetary policy anchor, central banks were encouraged to adopt inflation-targeting and more liquid and longer-term local Treasury bonds. With a nod toward the Doing Business attention, the Fund outlook praised “comprehensive initiatives” on competitiveness and the commercial environment, but lamented the lack of state enterprise privatization and anti-corruption and foreign investment promotion steps otherwise. It warned that “complacency” in headline reform movement may hamper fits with China’s Belt and Road and other global integration programs where rulebooks call for more thorough trade and financial reorientation.



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Iran’s Currency Run Unraveling Pose

2017 October 27 by

Iran’s currency, which had gradually moved over the past year in official and parallel markets from 30,000 toward 35,000 to the dollar, immediately tumbled past 40,000 and the Tehran stock exchange index also shed 2% ahead of President Trump’s new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and declaration to the US Congress to decertify nuclear accord compliance. Equities had been up 10 percent in the first half of the fiscal year from March to September, and the influential Planning and Budget Organization chief, Mohammad Baqr Nobakht, a close economic adviser to re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, had ruled out devaluation before the financial market rout, which may have been triggered by other factors beyond Washington’s harder line that could target IRCG-controlled listed companies it accuses of “confiscating wealth.”

The central recently cut the benchmark deposit rate to 15% as inflation hovers around 10%, and customers scrambled into foreign exchange, also buoyed by demand around the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq. The move was also precipitated by continued delay in unification of the dual exchange rate system, despite repeated promises to the International Monetary Fund and correspondent Asian and European banks which now conduct business since the country rejoined the SWIFT payments network. Reinforced US secondary sanctions could scupper these ties, but frozen financial sector reform is an equal threat especially since it is a centerpiece of President Rouhani’s second term agenda.

The IMF in its latest World Economic Outlook forecast GDP growth around 3.5% this year and next, as oil production ramped up to almost 4 million barrels/day within OPEC agreed limits for a 4.5% jump in the first quarter. Agriculture came in under that number, and industry including mining and construction showed the same performance, while services like hospitality and retailing surged 8%. Tourism boomed the past fiscal year with a 50% visitor rise to 6 million, and officials plan to triple the influx by 2025. Reported unemployment is 12.5%, and the youth figure is double that amount according to national statistics. The current account balance is solid with non-oil foreign trade increasing 5%, and exports to Russia a whopping 35%, in the first half. Foreign debt is low at $9 billion, with one-third short-term, and Vice President Eshaq Jahangari put FDI inflows at $15 billion since the nuclear deal went into effect in 2016.

Central bank governor Valiollah Seif projects trillions of dollars more in investment over the coming decade, as $20 billion in credit lines were recently signed with big Chinese and Korean and mid-size Austrian and Danish banks.  A study last year by global consultancy McKinsey estimated $1 trillion in additional output in the next twenty years, tapping into the 80 million young, educated and tech-savvy population often cited by the few foreign portfolio managers who have started dedicated funds. Iran advanced seven spots in the World Economic Forum’s 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Index, at 70 out of 140 countries, on incremental infrastructure and regulation improvements. Housing may finally be in recovery after a long recession with 9% sales growth in September in Tehran. The state-owned mortgage specialist Bank Maskan plans to finance an ambitious 1.5 million homes in the coming years, and slashed the discounted borrowing rate to 7.5%., while other commercial banks have shunned exposure under 12-year repayment terms.

The IMF in an October visit praised moves to crack down on previously unregulated “shadow” lenders which evaded rate caps, following the summer decision by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force to allow further time for anti-money laundering rule adoption. A ratings agency established by the central bank and Economy Ministry is to publically reveal general balance sheet  risk ratings for the sector, with $700 billion in assets, this month. Iran’s thirty-five banks currently have capital adequacy ratios between 6-10%, as they struggle with double-digit bad loan loads and prepare for eventual Basel III prudential standards. Leading executives from fully private competitors calculate that only half the current system will survive under a cleanup that may cost in the $100-billion range in the initial phase. Foreign investors bypass these listings even as their trading rose 25% in the year through August, according to the securities supervisor. The country’s leadership nightmare may not come only from President Trump’s “bad deal” interpretation, but currency and share slides reflecting monetary and financial system inaction.


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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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