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Strong Asia Recovery Dogged by Worries of Risky Capital Flows

A man walks near a display at a Metlife insurance office in Mumbai, India (File Photo)
A man walks near a display at a Metlife insurance office in Mumbai, India (File Photo)

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Asia rebounded strongly from the global financial crisis. But as international investors move large amounts of capital into Asian economies, concerns mount about inflation and volatility. Economists say Asia's experience in the 1997 financial crisis has left it stronger to withstand the challenge.

With low interest rates in the U.S. and Europe, international investors are moving billions of dollars into Asia, seeking higher returns.

Nalin Chutchotitham, economic research specialist at Kasikornbank in Bangkok, expects foreign capital to keep coming in the short term.

"The positive side of things is that capital cost in Asia has become cheaper because of these capital flows coming in," said Nalin.

That allows companies to expand and create new jobs.

And it also helped pushed up the value of Asian currencies, making imported raw materials cheaper. However, the downside of that is that a stronger currency makes a country's exports more expensive, which worries business leaders in Asia's export-driven economies.

But economic authorities across the region warn of larger risks caused by these funds. Too much money chasing assets pushes up inflation. In China, the government has vowed to keep prices under control after inflation in November reached its highest level in more than two years.

Capital flight is also a major concern. After a similar investment boom in the mid-1990s, worried investors in many Asian economies suddenly pulled out their money, causing currencies to plunge and companies to go bankrupt. Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea were among the worst hit.

"Everybody would like to see money come into the country," said Kobsidithi Silpachai, who heads the economic research unit of Kasikornbank. "But what type of money is it? Is it short term? Is it here for the long haul?"

Money that is short term, so-called hot money, is what worries economists, bankers and policy makers. Short-term money generally goes into stocks or bonds, and it can move out of a country quickly. Long-term investments in factories, farms and infrastructure, on the other hand, are seen as less volatile.

Siwage Dharma Negara, an economic analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, worries that the kind of money flowing into Indonesia these days is speculative.

"If you look at the financial data, what dominates the inflow of capital is basically the portfolio part, which is the stock market, government bonds, and also central bank certificates, but they're all not directly linked to the real economy," said Siwage.

Although there are concerns about the flow of money, economists and banking regulators say that Asia learned lessons from the crash in 1997.

Frederico Gil Sander, an economist at the World Bank in Thailand, says reforms made after the 1997 financial crisis left Asian economies stronger to withstand volatility.

He says many Asian governments, like Thailand, have piled up massive foreign currency reserves as buffers against capital flight and foreign exchange volatility.

"If all the funds that came in from the last six months decided to leave tomorrow, they would be no pressure on the exchange rate, it would be very marginal pressure because the central bank has plenty of reserves to meet those capital outflows," said Sander.

Also, in much of Asia, banks now are better regulated and there is less foreign-currency debt than in the 1990s.

Still, some governments are considering measures to prevent capital flight, including minimum investment holding periods or new taxes. But Sander says these controls should not penalize long-term investments.

"Any measures have to think very long term, about not dissuading these types of capital inflows, not creating an impression to foreign investors that there is uncertain regulatory environment," he added.

In China, the government is trying to absorb excess money in the financial system by ordering banks to limit lending, holding more reserves and possibly raising interest rates again.

As Asian governments take steps to tamp down inflation and limit destabilizing fund flows, economic growth in the region is expected to slow in 2011. However, economists and market analysts say the region will remain attractive to international investors.

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