Asia’s foreign reserves have never been stronger

ACROSS much of Asia, foreign currency reserves have never been stronger.

India’s are set to hit a new high of US$400 bil (RM1.68 tril) – enough to cover a year of imports – while holdings of international currencies in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia are all at record levels. China’s reserves – the world’s biggest – posted a seventh straight gain in August to US$3.09 tril, helping to reverse a near US$1 tril decline.

Steady capital inflows from yield-hungry investors and the weaker US dollar have swollen coffers, positioning Asia’s central banks to tackle any volatility triggered by the Federal Reserve’s plan to shrink its balance sheet – details of which are expected to be announced on Sept 20.

Indeed, central banks in India and Indonesia have been so confident in their innoculation from the Fed’s tightening that they both cut interest rates last month.

“It is a deliberate strategy to buttress defences as the Fed looks set to withdraw liquidity, raising risks for capital flows into emerging markets,” says Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong.

Asia’s central banks have good reason to be on their toes. A signal by then chairman Ben Bernanke in 2013 of a curb to his huge bond-buying programme threatened to suck capital away from the region and piled downward pressure on currencies. The Reserve Bank of India was among the hardest hit in the “taper tantrum” as speculators dumped the rupee.


India inflows

Conditions have since improved. Yield-hungry investors are chasing India’s high local real rates, stable rupee and the promise of more economic reforms.

Foreigners have poured more than US$20 bil into Indian debt and US$6.5 bil into stocks so far this year, helping the rupee rise more than 6% against the US dollar. India received US$60 bil in foreign direct investment in the year to March, making it one the largest recipients of inflows.

And it’s a similar story for much of the region, where the combination of robust economic growth and generous yields are luring investors even after four Fed rate increases.

“Asia still offers high rates of returns while among the G-3 central banks, inflation is yet to take off,” says Radhika Rao, economist at DBS Bank in Singapore.

Indonesia – where memories of the Asia financial crisis still linger – has built its foreign reserves to almost US$129 bil. As of end-August, the country had reserves equivalent to 8.6 months of imports and government external debt repayments.

Thailand’s reserves have climbed to a record US$196 bil as inflows surged. Indeed, the nation’s external position is so strong it’s becoming a headache for policymakers.

South Korea’s rose to a record US$384.8 bil as of end-August. That’s one reason the country’s policymakers remain confident of the economy’s resilience despite risks posed by the Fed and tensions with North Korea.

Japan’s reserves have remained stable at around US$1.2 tril since intervening in 2011 to stem the yen’s appreciation. Unlike other parts of Asia, Japan’s decades of economic stagnation has eroded the yields offered by the nation’s securities.

China’s reserves appear to be on an upward trajectory again, helped in part by the weaker US dollar and the renminbi’s surprising strength this year. But there are signs that officials feel the currency’s gains have gone far enough.

One reason money is flowing into Asia is evidence of decoupling between central banks in the region and the Fed.

“In previous US tightening cycles, monetary policies in Asia had been largely in sync with the Federal Reserve’s,” says Sian Fenner, lead Asia economist at Oxford Economics in Singapore. “But not this time.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 250.