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Stronger Asian Currencies Cause Concern for Exporters

Fears are emerging that the rise in Asia's currencies against the U.S. dollar will undermine the region's exports. Economists say companies face narrowing profit margins in a competitive global market.

Asian currencies have been on the rise against the U.S. dollar since the year's start.

The Japanese yen, Malaysian ringgit, Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Singapore dollar, among others, have risen by three to eight percent over the dollar.

Most Asian economies rebounded strongly from the global financial crisis that began in 2008. On the other hand, the major developed economies, including the United States, still are struggling to recover.

In Southeast Asia, particularly, investment money is flowing in, and output rising.

But economists and industries warn that stronger currencies are starting to hurt exporters.

Asia's export-driven economies have long relied on cheap currencies to boost growth. Now regional agricultural and industrial producers are seeing that edge disappear - stronger currencies make their goods more expensive overseas.

And that makes business harder, since their major markets - the developed economies - remain weak.

Shamika Sirimanne is a trade economist with the United Nations in Bangkok. "The global recovery is very tentative at the moment and yes the Western markets are opening up but not as fast as you'd like to see. So for the countries in this region competition is very fierce. And if the exchange rate is holding them back this is going to create big problems for exporters," Sirimanne said.

In Thailand, the central bank says capital inflows and investment have lifted the baht's value by more than six percent against the dollar. Exports, strong at the start of the year, are starting to slow, with growing competition from key competitors such as Vietnam.

Vichai Siriprasert is the honorary president of the Rice Traders Association of Thailand. "As a whole because Thailand exports a lot, when the currency is strong it will hurt all the sectors, all the export sectors, including rice," Vichai said. "I think it's to our interest to keep the currency stable, not to be weaker, not to be stronger, but to be stable if you can. That would be the best policy. But now we are climbing now to be one of the strongest."

Vichai, like many businesspeople in the region, complains that some Asian nations control the value of their currencies, and keep them from appreciating.

For instance, he says Hanoi's depreciation the value of its currency over the past year gave Vietnam a larger share of the global rice market. Vietnam does not allow its currency to trade freely in foreign exchange markets, the way the baht does.

Economists and manufacturers around the world also have complained for years that China keeps its currency artificially low. Beijing in June said it would let its yuan move more against the dollar and other currencies. However, the yuan's value has changed little.

Economists say Asia's export industries face narrowing profit margins in the months ahead, raising concerns of unemployment and slowing growth around the regions.