September 28, 2017
Twenty years on: The Asian Financial risis and Asian Monetary Fund (AMF)
Proposals for an Asian Monetary Fund (AMF) dominated corridor conversations at the 1997 IMF–World Bank annual meetings in Hong Kong. The Asian financial crisis had erupted a few months earlier and was engulfing the region.
The United States vetoed the idea, framing the proposal as the ‘IMF versus AMF’ where any type of AMF would undermine the IMF’s central role in the global financial system. Twenty years on, the circle has been closed, with the IMF launching a framework for collaborative action with regional arrangements.
Arguably, at that early stage of the crisis, the US position was not unreasonable. The mood of Asian finance officials was one of denial. Set against the backdrop of the Asian miracle, it was inconceivable, they thought, that self-inflicted policy distortions — quasi-fixed exchange rates combined with independent monetary policy — as well as compromised financial sector supervision helped drive the crisis. The idea of unconditional financing — not tied to reform — that would avoid reform was, they thought, a defendable proposition.
Still, the push for an AMF did suggest gaps in the global and regional financial architecture. What followed was a struggling ASEAN seeking to catch up, stop gap consultative groups like the Manila Framework Group, and a sequence of ad hoc parallel financing arrangements from the ‘Friends of Thailand’ to Indonesia’s so-called ‘second line of defence’.
The crisis broke on 2 July 1997. By late July, plans led by Japan and in cooperation with the IMF were underway for a regionally based meeting on Thailand. This informal grouping hosted by Japan in Tokyo on 11 August, became the ‘Friends of Thailand’. The concrete outcome of the meeting was a series of financial commitments by seven countries and the multilaterals, with the United States notably absent. The absence of the United States was perhaps shaped by congressional dissatisfaction with the Clinton Administration’s financial support of Mexico, which had been provided directly by the US Treasury without congressional approval during Mexico’s 1994 crisis.
Almost remarkably, this rushed US$17.2 billion collaborative financing arrangement was the regional success story from a sequence of ad hoc efforts to provide funding to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. The support was structured as a series of bilateral arrangements between Thailand and each country. Each drawing under these agreements was triggered in parallel with Thailand’s drawings under the IMF supported program. Commitments were credible as they were both conditional and fulfilled step by step.
By contrast, Indonesia’s more than US$40 billion package — including an US$18 billion ‘second line of defence’ through bilateral support — failed. The enormous scale of the funding, especially at that time, was intended to be a ‘shock and awe’ approach signalling to financial markets that stability was assured.
Some thought the second line would never need to be drawn and perhaps commitments were made with that expectation. But markets saw through this and in short order sufficient questions arose about the willingness of countries to follow through on commitments. This triggered uncertainty at best and arguably made the situation worse.
The South Korean experience of international support was different. The concentration of external debt through the South Korean banking system enabled the coordination of a relatively effective capital control mechanism, creating a window to develop a market-based debt restructuring in the first half of 1998. Here the US Federal Reserve played a leading role, along with other central banks, supported by the technical contributions of IMF and South Korean officials.
Asia’s leaders were unanimous in supportive statements about the need for a regional crisis response mechanism including funding. Yet there were issues that continue to pose a challenge for the credibility of arrangements, such as the ASEAN+3 Chiang Mai Initiative, today. Lee Kuan Yew, while not opposed to an AMF, cautioned that such an arrangement would need to do more than provide funding that might enable crisis countries to avoid essential reform. He went on, ‘I do not see any Asian group of governments in the AMF strong enough to tell … President Suharto, “You will do this or we will not support you”. If you don’t say that and you support him, that’s money down the drain’.
The Manila Framework Group was established in a November 1997 meeting as the direct result of the failed AMF discussions in Hong Kong. It would serve as a surveillance forum of 14 APEC economies meeting regularly and on an ad hoc basis through to the end of 2004. It played an important role by, for example, triggering a June 1998 Tokyo meeting with the G7 to respond to destabilising global currency moves. The G20 would also start in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis.
ASEAN was a participant but not a driver when the crisis broke. Its most concrete response came a few years later when, along with the ASEAN+3 countries, the Chiang Mai Initiative was launched in 2000. It was a modest first step especially as operational modalities remained to be defined for at least a decade and only in 2016 was there a ‘dry run’ to test the Chiang Mai Initiative’s capacity to respond to crisis.
Indonesia’s hastily developed Deferred Drawdown Option, with multilateral and bilateral support during the Global Financial Crisis, was another ad hoc instrument showing that gaps in the regional financial architecture persisted well into the 2000s.
Twenty years on, the IMF has spelled out plans for how to make the global financial safety net more effective through collaboration with regional financial arrangements — an outcome that seemed remarkably distant in the midst of the Asian financial crisis.
David Nellor is a Jakarta-based consultant. He was based in Asia for the IMF throughout the Asian financial crisis and participated in discussions on regional arrangements.
As a long-time Southeast Asia watcher, I have been very concerned about Malaysia which is increasingly beset with contradictory developments. Economically, it continues to grow faster than some neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia (That is bull Greg, check your facts on Cambodia from the Asian Development Bank before making your comment. In its most recent assessment,the Bank described Cambodia as an emerging tiger economy), yet it is mired in a series of financial scandals over the past three years, not to mention the worrying political scene.
The problem is many Malaysians have lost faith in the Najib Administration to the extent that any article that chastises Putrajaya is welcome even if it is not backed up with facts and statistics. One can read many of them on Malaysiakini or Free Malaysia Today. But it does not help Malaysians to develop a more critical mind when it comes to holding the powers-that-be to account.
This explains why many opposition leaders, blinded by popular support and swayed by populist sentiment, simply make one unsubstantiated allegation after another, only to find their position untenable and forced to retract thereafter.
No worries, for they have the people behind them whose negative perceptions of the government are already cast in stone and it matters not if these allegations hold water. If this vicious circle persists, I would not surprise to see Malaysia vote out UMNO and replace it with another set of arrogant politicians armed with half-baked policies to administer the country.
But it is a politician’s job to make sensational yet unsubstantiated claims, and an economist’s one to right them. Precisely why MB’s latest article is not only a huge letdown, but one that is unbecoming of his credentials, if any.”
Let me present an alternative reaction to Nurhisham’s article. It is from someone who calls himself Bumiputera Graduate as follows:
“I am unsure if Nurhisham is trying to shore up confidence in the Malaysian economy or defend the credibility of social and economic data produced in Malaysia.
I think Nurhisham is an expert at the sleight of hand. He has shifted the focus in the article from the main points that Manjit is making to those where Manjit is inaccurate.
Among the inaccuracies Nurhisham pointed out is that Malaysia does publish its labour force participation numbers, and that its budget deficit is going down. But Nurhisham doesn’t deny that perceived inflation figures are higher than reported figures; he only says it’s also the case with the US, which is not an answer at all.
He doesn’t touch on Manjit’s point on Bank Negara Malaysia manipulating the currency. Is Manjit right? Or is he wrong? Nurhisham says that his friends and associates at IMF and the World Bank have full confidence in Malaysia’s statistics.
Who knows if Manjit’s friends at the Fund and the Bank don’t have any confidence in Malaysia’s statistics. Hardly an argument worth a pinch of salt coming from the general manager, economics and capital markets of a government agency – the Employers Provident Fund – whose investment decisions are themselves questionable.
Again, when there are conservative estimates of 2 million undocumented migrant workers, with what confidence will you say that the minimum wage is implemented?
The labour market, going by his 3.6% indicator, may be at full employment, but he’s sweeping away the big problem of graduate unemployment (predominantly a Malay problem), the huge migrant labour problem, and the low productivity.
But if Manjit does a bit more of research and does a full article on the Malaysian economy, he may come up with a longer menu of issues that plague the economy than Nurhisham will be able to defend.
Manjit Bhatia, the byline says, is with a risk analysis company. If people like Manjit have views like this, that says a lot for the confidence that foreign analysts have in the Malaysian economy.
I think Nurhisham fails miserably in trying to shore up optimism in the economy, if that was his intention, even as he defends the credibility of data coming from Malaysia. With rebuttals such as his, what little confidence the public has, will further slide down.”
I leave you, my blog readers, to decide between the two views (Greg Balkin and Bumiputera Graduate). As far as I am concerned, and if I have surplus cash to invest, I will stay out the Malaysian stock exchange, the bond market and the Malaysian ringgit for a while, since I have no confidence in the Najib Administration’s management of the Malaysian economy. –Din Merican
Playing Malaysia’s number game