News analysis

Is a fresh financial crisis on the way?

An investor monitoring stock data in Beijing yesterday. Jumpy investors see the latest market turmoil as a potential forerunner of a new full-blown crisis.
An investor monitoring stock data in Beijing yesterday. Jumpy investors see the latest market turmoil as a potential forerunner of a new full-blown crisis.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The global financial crisis is still a vivid memory for many, so it is hardly surprising that jumpy investors see the latest market turmoil as a potential forerunner of a new full-blown crisis.

But experts counsel that a collapse is most unlikely, citing key differences between market and economic conditions now and those before previous crises, including the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

In Singapore, investors are looking at a market shaken by the regional rout, with the benchmark Straits Times Index losing 15.2 per cent over the past month to hit its lowest level since June 2012.

The dramatic selldown has been driven by rising uncertainty over China, where the yuan's devaluation, slowing growth and shrinking exports have sparked widespread concerns.

Currencies and commodities have not been spared. The Singapore dollar has lost around 3 per cent against the United States dollar over the past month, while Malaysia's ringgit has sunk 11 per cent against the US dollar. Brent futures, the global crude oil benchmark, are languishing near 61/2-year lows.

As the bad news continues to pile up, memories of previous financial crises - including the late 1990s regional bust triggered by currency volatility - are being evoked.

Remisier Chung Chun He said: "A lot of retail investors are very spooked by the heavy selling now, and they are wondering whether we are on the verge of another full-blown crisis."

Some parallels exist between the situation now and the lead-up to the late 1990s crisis. China had its last major currency devaluation in 1994 just as the US was set to hike interest rates. However, market watchers and economists do not think Singapore and the rest of Asia are on course for a major collapse.

Ms Kum Soek Ching, Credit Suisse's private banking and wealth management regional research head, said that while the market is being hit by very heavy fund withdrawals from the region, talk of a crisis is premature.

"Asian markets are adjusting for a rise in the US rates and reacting to a weaker-than-expected Chinese economy. While Singapore is highly exposed to both threats, given our link to US rates and our trade exposure to China, our external account positions are far from vulnerable. We don't have the ingredients for a full-blown crisis."

Bank of Singapore chief economist Richard Jerram said the health of regional economies now is "a world apart" compared with what it was in the late 1990s.

"The region is generally much more stable now, with external surpluses, sizeable foreign exchange reserves and less vulnerability to external debt," he said.

"The market is probably overreacting. The US and European recovery is firmer than it has been in years. We should certainly be concerned about China, which no doubt has deep structural issues, but these issues are not new and neither was there a sudden flip of its growth trend."

Barclays senior economist Leong Wai Ho felt the crisis, if any, is more one of confidence, but he is not sure current woes will blow over soon.

"We are not going to see banks and companies go bust because their balance sheets are now much stronger. But the concerns are getting bigger and hitting markets worldwide, and the fear, while not necessarily justified, does seem to be magnified at every turn."

Amid the uncertainties, it is best for investors to at least keep a watchful eye on the situation, experts cautioned.

Mr Chung said: "It's still too early to say whether there's a crisis brewing, but at least the bearish mood will persist in the near term. I hope there's a rebound soon, but the crisis talk is definitely something for investors to be conscious of."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Is a fresh financial crisis on the way?'. Print Edition | Subscribe