Emerging currency crisis: China seen as resilient firewall

An employee using a currency counting machine at a Shanghai bank. China still boasts a strong foreign reserve position and has taken steps to cut debt.
An employee using a currency counting machine at a Shanghai bank. China still boasts a strong foreign reserve position and has taken steps to cut debt.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • China is the last bulwark against a deepening currency crisis in emerging economies, analysts say, although a prolonged trade war could sap Beijing's defences.

Emerging countries - loosely defined as having fast-growing but volatile economies - have seen their currencies battered in recent weeks, plunging their finances into turmoil, and raising fears of global contagion.

But China, the world's second-biggest economy and itself categorised as an emerging market, does not share a key downside of the worst-hit countries: their rampant current account deficits.

"The possibility of a currency crisis in China is unlikely," said China's Rushi Advanced Institute of Finance chief economist Guan Qingyou. "China's ability to resist risk is relatively strong."

'NAIL IN COFFIN' Current account deficits must be financed with foreign currencies, and as central banks across the world enter a cycle of tighter monetary conditions, especially the powerful US Federal Reserve, cheap money will become scarce.

Higher US interest rates are "another nail in the coffin" for emerging countries needing external financing, said FXTM research analyst Lukman Otunuga.

RELATIVELY STRONG

The possibility of a currency crisis in China is unlikely. China's ability to resist risk is relatively strong.

MR GUAN QINGYOU, chief economist at China's Rushi Advanced Institute of Finance.

Meltdowns of the Turkish lira - somewhat stemmed by a recent massive interest rate rise - and the Argentinian peso are cases in point, as both countries have "exceptionally large current account deficits", said Mr Oliver Jones, markets economist at Capital Economics.

South Africa, Colombia and, to a lesser extent, India and Indonesia, are in similar danger of being trapped in Fed rate hike pain, he said. But the currencies of South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia have done much better because of their close trade ties with Beijing and healthier current accounts.

STRONG RESERVES China itself still boasts a strong foreign reserve position and has taken steps to cut debt, both useful shields against global turmoil.

"Our foreign exchange reserves are still relatively high," said Mr Guan. In addition, China has already started the process of deleveraging after the end of 2016."

But even if fundamentals are still holding up, only the very brave dare predict how damaging ongoing trade tensions with the United States will be to China's position.

Recent tentative signs of improving trade ties between Washington and Beijing have lifted investor spirit, but threats of the US imposing fresh tariffs on Chinese imports worth US$200 billion (S$275 billion) still loom large.

TRADE SHOCK Ms Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned recently that higher US-China tariffs would have a "measurable impact on growth in China" and "trigger vulnerabilities" among its Asian neighbours.

While her staff did not yet see contagion spreading beyond the countries currently fighting investor flight, the escalating US-China trade spat could deliver a shock to emerging markets, she told the Financial Times.

But in the meantime, said S&P Global analyst Joydeep Mukherji, "we are not forecasting a major crisis in emerging markets".

Perhaps inspired by the 10th anniversary of the global financial crisis, economists have started to wonder whether there could be another worldwide meltdown, this time triggered by highly indebted emerging countries. For now, the answer appears to be no.

" China can still cope with its debt due to its high savings rate," said Berenberg analyst Holger Schmieding.

"Some other emerging markets are in trouble. Fortunately, they are simply not big enough to cause a big new global crisis."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'Emerging currency crisis: China seen as resilient firewall'. Print Edition | Subscribe