Commodity-exporting nations take currency hit

Customers queueing at a money changer in Bishan yesterday evening, as the Australian dollar fell below the Singapore dollar and the Malaysian ringgit and Indonesian rupiah hit fresh lows against the US dollar.
Customers queueing at a money changer in Bishan yesterday evening, as the Australian dollar fell below the Singapore dollar and the Malaysian ringgit and Indonesian rupiah hit fresh lows against the US dollar.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Aussie dollar, ringgit, rupiah slide to new lows in sign of fragile global recovery

The currencies of commodity-exporting Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia have all tumbled to fresh multi-year lows against the United States dollar in the past few days, exposing the fragility of the global economic recovery.

"In general, global trade and consumption data has been poor, and these currencies are at the front and centre of that," said Mr Nizam Idris, head of foreign exchange strategy at Macquarie.

Yesterday, Indonesia's rupiah weakened by 17 per cent against the greenback from a year ago, Malaysia's ringgit was 20 per cent cheaper and the Australian dollar depreciated 30 per cent.

Even though the weaker currencies make exports from these countries cheaper, already soft commodity prices and consumption trends exacerbated by a slowing China are unlikely to give them an export lift, analysts said.

"The last crisis was a major balance sheet crisis, and these take a long time to recover from. People are still deleveraging, and the recovery has been pretty shallow," said Mr Idris.

CHINA FACTOR

All these currencies have strong linkages to the Chinese economy. One worry is that financial sector weakness could cascade into the real sector.

But once China shows us that the growth path is not too badly affected, these concerns will fade.

MR LEONG WAI HO, Barclays economist

The pace of global export growth has also lagged global output growth in the past 12 months, a trend that is more typical of crisis years, he added. "At the end of last year when oil prices fell, people said that would put more money in consumers' pockets to spend, but that has not been true."

The latest bout of stock market turbulence in China - the world's largest commodity buyer - has also made investors jittery about their ringgit, rupiah and Australian dollar holdings.

"All these currencies have strong linkages to the Chinese economy. One worry is that financial sector weakness could cascade into the real sector," said Barclays economist Leong Wai Ho. "But once China shows us that the growth path is not too badly affected, these concerns will fade."

Still, most analysts see the three currencies heading lower over the next few months, as overcapacity in the iron ore market weighs on Australia, economic reforms take time in Indonesia and Malaysia suffers from lifting rather than cutting its commodity-export dependency since the Asian financial crisis.

The markets are also bracing themselves for the US Federal Reserve to begin its first rate hike cycle in nine years this year, which has been driving a US dollar rally.

So far, the greenback has gained 10 per cent against the Singapore dollar from a year ago, with one US dollar worth about S$1.369 yesterday.

But the US dollar rally is unlikely to persist past the Fed lift-off, said analysts.

"Typically, the US dollar tends to find a peak against most currencies at the time of the first Fed hike," said Mr Tan Teck Leng, forex strategist at UBS Wealth Management.

"Once it becomes clear that the Fed will hike rates at a gradual pace, we will see some stabilisation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2015, with the headline 'Commodity-exporting nations take currency hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe