________________________________________________________________________ Asia's financial turmoil enters sixth month Copyright ) 1997 Nando.net Copyright ) 1997 Agence France-Presse SINGAPORE (December 27, 1997 10:07 p.m. EST http://www.nando.net) - Asia's financial turmoil enters its sixth month this week amid forecasts that the region's currency meltdown will persist in 1998 as economies contract, governments tighten spending and people put up with higher interest rates. The Chinese calendar's Year of the Tiger could see Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand engulfed in a biting recession and little growth forecast for the economies of Malaysia, the Philippines and even Singapore, analysts said. While governments battle inflation -- due to galloping costs suffered by the sharp erosion in their currency values -- and unemployment stemming from business closures, they would at the same time beef up exports for speedy recovery, according to the analysts. They believe that pressure on the troubled Asian currencies would ease by the middle of 1998 when markets shift their focus to Europe where efforts to forge a single Euro currency would take centrestage. "The second half of 1998 is likely to be a period of consolidation for many Asian currencies," said Philip Wee, regional treasury economist with Standard Chartered in Singapore. Wee said during that period, he expected more evidence of the export cycle picking up in Asia where currencies have devalued rapidly, adding that governments would encourage investments that generate foreign exchange earnings as opposed to those that encourage consumer imports. "The belt-tightening in Asia in 1998 will discourage foreign direct investments aimed at exploiting the domestic consumer markets or significant foreign portfolio flows seeking to derive capital gains in the asset markets, " he said. The meltdown in the Asian currencies had followed plunges in stock and property markets in the region and snowballing of debts leading to bankruptcies and winding down of companies, banks and industries. "The debts are stacking up and most of them are unhedged. Against this scenario, we could possibly see near zero growth in Indonesia, just as in South Korea and Thailand," said Jimmy Koh, regional economist with British financial house I.D.E.A. Analysts warn that if currencies, especially those of South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia -- the three economies that have come under the belt of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- continue to slide, a debt moratorium would be the only answer. If they default on their foreign debt and declare a moratorium, creditors would have to form a consortium to negotiate a repayment schedule. Asia's currency crisis was sparked off by Thailand's de facto devaluation of its baht on July 2 and spread to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries and engulfed North Asia as well. Since July 2, the U.S. dollar has appreciated by a staggering 120 percent against the Indonesian rupiah, 84 percent against the Thai baht, 53 percent against the Malaysian ringgit, 52 percent against the Philippine peso and 17 percent against the Singapore dollar. The greenback had chalked up 65 percent against the Korean won since September 15. Although there was relief after the IMF announced a speed-up of aid to South Korea last week following a $60 billion bailout pledge for the ailing economy, analysts warn the South Korean finance sector is still in trouble. "I think the action by the IMF last week underscores the desperate state of South Korean finances," said David Cohen, analyst with US research house Standard and Poor's MMS in Singapore. Cohen said based on preliminary figures, South Korea notched a surplus in the current account for the second month running in December and "this gives some hope and shows some progress." "If they can simply not suffer a big capital outflow, this can help resolve their problem," he added. Jacqueline Ong, a regional economist at I.D.E.A., said the Asian currency storm did not show signs of receding and "we continue to hold a bearish view for the next three to six months."
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